What are we building down there?
- What is the difference between a fairy tale in the West and a fairy tale in the East?
- A fairy tale in the West starts with the words “Once upon a time there was…”
A fairy tale in the East starts with the words “Once upon a time there will be…”*
Once upon a time there will be a Bucharest that positions itself as a model city for
privatization processes worldwide…
In order to grasp this fairy tale-proposition, we first need to go back in time.
In 1999, ten years after state socialism’s collapse had caused a series of
relentless societal and economic transformations, an ambitious business transaction
was unfolding in Bucharest. It was akin to a fairy tale. The America’s Partners
investment group launched the radical plan to drastically transform the People’s House,
Romania’s most famous, gargantuan public edifice whose construction was started under
the Ceaușescu regime, and which accommodates since the mid-90s the seats of the
country’s political and administrative powers. In this fairy tale business transaction,
the investors proposed to build a theme park alongside the House, which was to be funded
by Michael Jackson, as well as casinos financed by American indigenous tribes and
commercial galleries for which Persian Gulf investors would provide financial support.
Although this plan appears unsettling in both scope and content, there is also a
certain beauty emanating from this outlandish business proposition. It is a beauty
that keeps the symbolic function of the People’s House intact, while expanding its
public appeal through privately managed entertainment facilities.
Is there a more symptomatic merging of political and corporate imaginaries conceivable?
…in the meanwhile, Michael Jackson has died, and this fairy tale has been abandoned…
Still, a wide variety of other, more humble yet equally eager corporate and private
investors continue to build and shape post-socialist Bucharest’s architecture of
privatized pragmatism. It is an architecture that celebrates industrial real estate,
a rich variety of corporate spaces, big-box retail, shopping malls of different sizes,
warehouses, and gated communities. It nestles itself in-between, on top of, and
adjacent to the already existing, historically layered city infrastructure. In this
way, it creates ever more hybrid approaches to what is considered public and what is not,
while reversing the power relationship from formerly government-controlled to a
predominantly corporate and privately maintained urban environment.
Yet this fairytale doesn’t merely consist of construction builders and corporate
There are also entrepreneurs of a different kind, concerned with a different mode of
construction, one that engages with the social configuration of the city. They lay
out hidden actions for those who currently inhabit contemporary Bucharest. They
accommodate modes of non-oppositional dissent, which in turn can nestle themselves
in-between, on top of, and adjacent to the new architecture, and do so from critical,
poetic, and contagious points of view. They propose strategies of movement, translation,
trickery, and distraction. Scripted across three main settings – Public Space, Office Space,
Domestic Space – they forge unfamiliar relationships between humans and non-humans,
corporations and organizations, objects and ideas, returning a sense of publicness to the
otherwise privatized and corporatized urban realm.
And so a fairy tale becomes something that once upon a time will be…
(Niels Van Tomme)
* C. Banc and Alan Dundes, eds. You Call This Living? A Collection of
East European Political Jokes, Athens: The University of Georgia Press
As established throughout the curatorial concept entitled ‘What are we building down there?’,
BB7 will highlight the themes of privatization, commercialization, and corporatization of the
post-socialist city within its very structure, thereby displacing the biennale onto twenty-one
advertising billboards. Dispersed across Bucharest, the billboard signifies high visibility and
holds the potential to interact with unique local contexts in ways that traditional modes of
exhibition making oftentimes cannot. As such, they act as artistic footnotes to the already
existing city infrastructure, opening up new ways of connecting and navigating the city, while
making apparent important yet often concealed aspects of its past, present, and future possibilities.
By organizing BB7 exclusively on advertising billboards, the biennale will radically and publicly
appropriate Bucharest’ smoothest and most visible two-dimensional commercial surfaces. The
biennale, instead of being an actor working against all-pervasive processes of commercialization,
thus acts as one of many possible conduits through which to imagine novel modes of non-oppositional
dissent. Working closely with the artists, it simultaneously revives an almost anachronistic mode
of site-specific artistic intervention in physical space, right at the magnified and materialized
outpost of our spam-infused everyday existence. Drawing on the utopian ideals of the historical
avant-garde with regards to the liberating and educational potential of advertising as well as the
more deviant culture-jamming practices of collectives such as the Billboard Liberation Front,
BB7 reinterprets the billboard’s inherent experimental potential to activate new ways of looking
at, interpreting, and/or moving around within present day Bucharest.
The twenty-one locations will act as vantage points from which to position oneself towards recent
urban developments within Bucharest. The biennale will thus reveal a stratified urban context in
which the billboard holds a foremost symbolic importance, if only for its ever-more proliferating
presence and political, as well as economic and cultural power.