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Interview with Curator Olga Ștefan

Curator Olga Ștefan took time to answer more questions about her practice as a curator, the experience of migration, and the current exhibition at Gallery 400, Few Were Happy with Their Condition .

The experience of migration is complicated by socio-political conditions. Some migrations are forced and result in refugee status, while others move by choice and consider themselves cosmopolitan, almost celebrating the triumph of globalization. Why do you choose this term to describe your curatorial practice, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of this condition?

Migration is defined by moving from one place to another, relocation. Indeed some migration is the result of war, or political and social uncertainty, so some who migrate are also refugees, which describes their legal status in the country to which they emigrate. But there is also economic migration, not necessarily celebrating the triumph of globalization but as a result of the economic necessities it creates. I have experienced both types of migration. As an economic migrant now, as opposed to the original form of migration my family and I experienced coming to the United States from Romania, I am most likely more privileged than a refugee. However, there are still inherent challenges to migration that on different levels affect all who go through it:: alienation, adaptation, belonging, etc. Relocation offers us the chance to start over and forces us to create a new identity. We can reconsider ourselves in relation to a context in which we might not be completely comfortable. It's a confrontation to the image we have of ourselves and this can lead to growth or retreat.

Olga Website

Claudiu Cobilanschi, Microclimates, 2015. 6 black and white photographs, 31x39 in. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Krems.

You identify as a curator working in the context of a migratory condition, and all the artists in Few Were Happy with Their Condition are from Romania. Is this return to reflect on Romanian society a bit of a homecoming for you and some of the artists?

I have been working with and considering the Romanian art scene for a very long time now. My Master’s thesis in 2001 at the School of the Art Institute focused on the impact of art and culture on the development of a civil society in Romania. I have curated several shows with artists from Romania, both in Chicago and in Zurich. The post-communist transition and how the artists respond to it does indeed interest me. I wouldn't say the exhibition is a homecoming necessarily but rather that it brings together different aspects of my identity. It and the work selected for it reflect my personal, social, and existential preoccupations.

The works in this exhibition could be grouped under the term “new media.” In what ways, is photography and video well-suited to address the themes in this exhibition?

Photography, video, and film—especially experimental film—record a certain reality experienced by the artists themselves, while at the same time critiquing the hegemony of Hollywood, TV, and mass-media's influence on society. These media allow us to access the artists' perspective in a much more immediate way, connecting us more directly with the topics and images presented than more traditional media would.

Can you describe how you make connections among the artists and/or organize artworks you choose for your exhibitions?

In the selections I make for the shows I curate, there is always some sort of social commentary—I cannot escape this. The works usually respond to various anxieties, preoccupations, or questions that I myself have. I feel the need to learn something through the work I show. When I no longer feel that I am learning something new, or I am not presented with a new way of looking at the world, I generally lose interest in the work or artist. Aesthetic and formal exercises are not at all exciting for me and I don't know how to integrate them into my curatorial approach. In terms of the layout of the shows, I combine visual with thematic qualities to enhance the viewer's experience of the work. Sometimes the work gains a new level of meaning when placed together with another, while other times it can be overpowered. Therefore, it's important to allow each work to exist in its entirety while communicating with the space and other works around it.

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Few Were Happy with Their Condition, 2016 (installation view). Right: Ștefan Constantinescu, On the Other Side, 2015, video, 9 min., courtesy of the artist. Center: Cristina David, A Voice, 2013, video, 2 min., courtesy of Point Barre organization. Left: Claudiu Cobilanschi, Microclimates, 2015, 6 black and white photographs, 31x39 in., courtesy of Kunsthalle Krems.

In what ways does this exhibition engage audiences that are not necessarily familiar with Romania or Eastern Europe?

The majority of the work translates very well to the experience most of us have in our everyday lives. It reveals universal questions that we too ask ourselves and situations we are confronted by. The work that might seem more specific to the Romanian condition is also work that we can learn from—what is it like to be living in a different country with a different history and tradition?