Curator Anca Rujoiu, who recently relocated to Bucharest after spending 9 years working in Singapore as a founding member, curator and publishing editor at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, brought me in as translator in a video project, Inventory of the Week, which was an event organized by the Solitude Project non-profit organization in partnership with the National Centre for Dance Bucharest and held between 9-13 May at Sala Omnia in Bucharest, Romania.
This imposing hall that is currently in an advanced state of decay, apparently unknown to many as it is hidden behind the Ministry of the Interior, has hosted the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party and most of the party congresses until 1989. Then it became the headquarters of the Romanian Senate and later on, it hosted the Ion Dacian National Opera and Musical Theatre. Since 2016, the hall has been attributed by government decree to The National Center for Dance Bucharest (CNDB), the only public cultural institution subordinated to the Ministry of Culture created with the purpose of supporting, developing and promoting contemporary dance, currently managed by choreographer Vava Ștefănescu.
Sala Omnia, designed in 1967 by the architect Cezar Lăzărescu, is stunning in its modernist brutalist appearance that combines geometric futuristic elements with those of Romanian traditional folklore (among others, some massive wooden elements that where the distinctive pieces that separated the foyer in two rooms).
Mihai Mihalcea, dancer, choreographer and programme director at CNDB, took us on an official tour of the building. We went through the foyer, up the marble stairs to the first floor where there was the plenary hall, which would host congresses, other meetings and conferences. The architectural details of what anthropologist Ovidiu Țichindeleanu calls the “lyrical modernism” imagined by architect Cezar Lăzărescu were impressive. From the marble planters, to the protocol markings on the floor, where the red carpet outlined the areas of power and was the most coveted spot in the hierarchy, to decorative elements with reinterpreted folk motifs and wood panel railings that amplified a false sense of intimacy.
This sensation was quickly forgotten once you looked up towards the ceiling shaped like a honeycomb that let natural light pass through. The light had been controlled by workers who walked on a system of metal planks above the ceiling to open and close some shutters as instructed. The sensation of a panopticum as a surveillance method was amplified once we went to the second floor, where there were the technical rooms and many other rooms from which you could watch and listen to what was happening in the main hall from behind the wooden panels on the walls.
As Țichindeleanu said in the film by Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, Omnia Communia Deserta (the name of Sala Omnia comes from the slogan omnia sunt communia = everything belongs to everyone), which was screened during the Inventory of the Week, sala Omnia is “neither Bentham’s prison, nor Tiwanaku’s sungate, but rather a replica of the Versailles court, [...] [which] was also an optical device for the surveillance of the court, at the convenience of the absolute monarch.”
In this stopover among the ruins and in this context of recovering the leftover pieces of the history of modernity, curator Anca Rujoiu envisioned the programme of the Inventory of the Week as a series of screenings of films from all over the world that interrogate the spaces of modernity, the effect of introducing modernity in some traditional cultural spaces and the appearance of frictions between these different worldviews. The film selection made by Anca included films from Romania (two of them filmed in Sala Omnia), Georgia, Lithuania, but also Indonesia, Singapore, Kuwait and USA. For three hours during each day of the week, the films would play in a loop, very similar to video installations at any art biennial. The hybrid space between cinema and video installation was an open one that you could easily navigate in order to facilitate the direct experience of the image. Since the foyer of the hall was cold and damp with the paint coming off the walls, a fluffy carpet with pillows and blankets and benches were carefully added for the audience with the help of a team of architects.
The films selected by Anca directly refer to sustainable practices, the conservation of architectural heritage and of the environment, to reinterpreting utopias of the past in a contemporary way. Among the main themes tackled by the films during the Inventory of the Week were the utopian spaces of modernity (one of the largest malls in the USA, an abandoned smart city in Georgia), nature taking over abandoned spaces (nature returning to a former railway in Singapore), traditions and gestures reinterpreted in a context of renewing identity (girls in Indonesia donning warrior costumes traditionally worn by men only) and issues of automation and extraction (work efficiency and the extraction of diamonds). Although the topics were quite serious, Natasha Tontey's film, Garden amidst the Flame, was different from the rest by the fact that she consciously used humour while presenting a group of teenage girls from Indonesia who practice the ancient ritual of the Minahasan warriors. As artist Jon Dean said, it's very unusual and extremely rare to hear hearty laughter in the audience at an art film screening.
From what I’ve understood, Sala Omnia will be remade from scratch and the original architectural elements which make it so special will be removed. The most stunning decorative geometric elements, in my opinion, are those on the ceiling downstairs, some fabulous volumetric shapes which will, most probably, also disappear during the renovation process. In this context, I made several sketches after taking pictures at Sala Omnia, precisely to capture the leftover pieces of the history of modernity to which curator Anca Rujoiu is referring to, while also adding another layer to it, an artistic-documentary dimension meant to lead to new personal stylistic discoveries.
For now, through the efforts of the team of CNDB, the building has been classified as a historical monument, meant to be followed by the bidding period for choosing a firm to rehabilitate the hall, activity that has to be carried out by the Ministry of Culture. The project of sala Omnia is unclear and may vary, we have to wait and see what happens. Meanwhile, The National Center for Dance Bucharest is excelling through its Academy of Dance and Performance, an intensive educational and training programme in contemporary dance, destined for dancers and producers that are just starting out.
This was definitely an enriching and inspiring experience. Not knowing of the existence of this hall, I cannot help but wonder how many such modernist buildings are spread out all over the country, how many of them we have lost and how many of them have been saved in a conscious manner. These spaces are great opportunities for us to dial down our instinct of cleaning up the past, offering us the chance to revisit some spaces that are filled by disenchanted utopias that could breathe a more contemporary air and could be introduced in the public cultural sphere.
Inventory of the Week
Artists: Tekla Aslanishvili, Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, Alia Farid, Migrant Ecologies, Alexandra Pirici, Emilija Škarnulytė, Natasha Tontey, Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor, Bo Wang, Mădălina Zaharia
Curator: Anca Rujoiu
Management and production: Radu Leșevschi
Projection Screen: Atelier Ad Hoc (George Marinescu and Daria Oancea)
AV support: Justin O’Shaugnessy, Marius Costache
Graphic design: Daniel & Andrew
Translations and editing: Sorina Tomulețiu
Copyright photos: Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor (stills from the film Omnia Communia Deserta), Petre Fall, Camil Băncioiu & Sorina Tomulețiu