Bureau of Melodramatic Research
How does one meet a bureau?
I found out the answer to this question, when I met with the two artists behind the name of this artistic duo, to talk to them about their project, and how it came about. While still MA students, the two were interested in researching the history of melodrama in Romanian cinema, however, access to the film archives was challenging. Firstly, the organization of the archive was problematic, as there were no real methods to search for this type of film. Moreover, in the National Film Archives, one has to pay to watch each film, which was something two students would not have been able to afford. Ironically, funding in education was usually only available for going abroad, not for research into local or national history. So, the two decided to turn a problem into an opportunity, and it was then that they created the Bureau of Melodramatic Research.
The artists consider their work to be context-related; rather than a performance, they create interventions into reality or situations. In fact, what they have created with their first project, Ghirtoiu/Stanescu Archive, is a parallel reality. Where history didn’t exist, or was inaccessible, they created their own. According to the artists, the Archive was found when Marian Ghirtoiu passed away. Ghirtoiu had worked for the “Bureau for the Destruction of Forbidden Films,” and it is because of him that the archive, of film stills of the actresses Mona and Lisa Stanescu, performing in the melodramatic films that the artists had wished to gain access to in real life.
The stills were created in the manner of Cindy Sherman, staged by the artists, but in apartments that were authentically decorated according to the pre-war style. The artists created the photographs using real homes of people who had returned to their previously nationalized apartments and re-decorated them in the style from the time they had been vacated – with period decoration, furniture, accessories, etc.
In the description of the Ghirtoiu/Stanescu Archive, it is suggested that Mona and Lisa were in fact “playing the masquerade of femininity,” which would make them part of an early feminist movement in Romania. And this is precisely the reason for the artists’ interest in melodrama – the performative aspect of gender and identity. In my research I have found a number of artists whose work deals with gender, however many of them have told me that they prefer not to be associated with feminism – a common approach among younger artists from both sides of the East/West divide nowadays. So when I asked the artists whether they considered themselves, or their artistic practice, feminist, they told me that while they don’t have a problem with their work being called feminist, they do have a problem with their artistic practice being seen as only feminist, as their work explores a range of issues, not just feminism.
The Ghirtoiu/Stanescu Archive is a great example of artistic innovation in the face of limitations. When I asked them who their artistic influences were, either in Romania or internationally, they mentioned Dan and Lia Perjovschi, whose studio they visited and whose workshops they attended. One of the lessons learned there was the advice that Lia had given them – “if you don’t have a context, create your own.” Dan and Lia had also done this themselves, often working without the material means, but finding a way to do something.
Their interest in femininity and gender expanded their research from archives to statistics. Gross National Heel (2010) analyzes data collected on the heel sizes of women in neighboring Moldova, by measuring the size of the heels worn by women they encountered on the streets in downtown Chisinau. The results of these surveys were displayed in charts and graphs around the city, in the locations where the data was collected. Originally the artists had want to present the information in the Bureau of Statistics in Chisinau, however the director there felt that this wasn’t a relevant subject of statistics. So, the presentation or performance was done outside the Bureau, by a Moldovan artist Tatiana Fiodorova.
The artists are aware of the complexities in dealing with the Romania’s past, which is a problem in many European post-war nations. There are many elements of the past that citizens would like to erase, and the attitude toward history changes from generation to generation. As they told me, “if you can’t look at [this] history, then you have to invent it.” But inventing it was just the first step. With regard to the Ghirtoiu/Stanescu Archive project, the artists created a real “bureau” that people could visit, and interact with the materials collected. They also invited scholars and artists to comment on the topics relevant to the Archive. Many of their other works take the form of lectures or presentations, which not only offer information but also stimulate discussion. In this way, they create history both through their work and interaction with viewers.