Cultural heritage or branding and storytelling?

Text and photos Stefania Kenley

On 22 October 2011 the prestigious Marcel Duchamp prize was awarded to Mircea Cantor. Among the items now on show in the contemporary art collection of the Pompidou Centre we can already find one of his works with the following explanatory caption:
“The Romanian artist Mircea Cantor has lived and worked in France since 1999 while carrying out numerous collaborative projects with his country of origin. The piece Tasca che punge was produced as part of the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Italian gallery Magazzino d’Arte Moderna, in December 2007. It alludes to the situation of Romanian immigrants in Italy. The installation consists of a pair of Armani trousers, a symbol of luxury and success, hanging on a line like washing put out to dry. The trouser pockets are decorated with nettles and dirt, referring to both the displacement and the lack of money of Romanian immigrants. The work can also be seen as a self-portrait of the artist at the age of thirty. It shows his desire to portray travelling and displacement in art.” If we read this notice carefully we can distinguish two voices: one of the curator reminding us of the poverty of the unfortunate “Romanian immigrants” and the other one of the artist intending to express “travelling and displacement in art”. What is described by the curator as pockets of the Armani trousers “decorated with nettles and dirt”, becomes Cantor trousers pushing up witty words.

This work of art shows us a way of looking at the recent controversy concerning cultural heritage. In France, the Commission of Historical Monuments, founded in 1837 , introduced classification criteria for unique and valuable objects to be inherited by future generations. This heritage – only historical monuments were classified first – was later seen as part of a cultural heritage including not only a larger material set of things and natural sites, but also cultural expression: traditions, folklore, language, etc. More recently, the notion of heritage was extended to cover domestic architecture and the recent artefacts, including the modern architecture and recent buildings conceived by respected creators. In the French cultural context, the exponential growth of what should be kept is starting to be questioned; over-accumulation encourages a fossilized system that rejects experiment and avoids everything that would unsettle the preset order.

This long and solid tradition of conservation of cultural heritage was present in the International Cultural Heritage Show in Paris, in the exhibition hall of the Carrousel du Louvre, between 3 and 6 November . In the show were displayed devices and objects, accompanied by explicit documentation on a series of traditional arts and crafts, adapted to a variety of materials and building types: urban, rural, military, industrial, etc. The event was also a meeting place of different associations of professionals and institutions involved in heritage preservation. The public presentations included topics on conservation, quality of restoration, technical expertise and preservation strategies. Several examples of political initiatives for urban transformation showed the extent of Government involvement in the preservation of local heritage, including military settlements and industrial sites. As for rural heritage, both public and private funding encourage the preservation of peasant houses, increasing ethnographic awareness and revealing a tradition in cooking, crafting, etc.

The conference organised during the Show was not merely informative. The title “Urban planning and modernity: a couple under stress” for instance, opened a debate. The guests at this round table represented different positions on the built environment: the architectural historian François Loyer (ex-president of the Commission Vieux Paris) on the one hand and, on the other, the engineer-architect Jacques Ferrier, author of the French pavilion at the 2010 Universal Exhibition in Shanghai. As expected, François Loyer pleaded for a discreet type of intervention in the historical centre of Paris, respecting the coherence of the street pattern – for instance, that of the XIXth century. Thus, he took a position against new interventions conceived not to integrate, but to shock, considering that architecture should not become an advertising object designed to “impose the architect’s signature” on the background of the existing built environment.

Two days later, in a research seminar on the theme of conservation organised by Bernard Haumont  at the school of architecture ENSA Paris-Val de Seine, the role of ideological discourse in the relationship between identity and heritage was raised. Bernard Toulier, conservation head of the heritage department in the French the Ministry of Culture, brought up the example of the Goree Island in Senegal to underline the importance of “storytelling” in the “creation of heritage” . Like a speech of a political figure, the storytelling gift of a local guide can influence the process of preservation and restoration. Once created, the “story” can encourage the construction of a monument which is out of scale with its surroundings in order to highlight or even glorify a particular historical dimension and the story can be sustained financially even by a respectable institution like UNESCO.

During the same seminar, Adriana Diaconu analysed the situation of Rahova-Uranus, a quarter of Bucharest that has fallen in disgrace after the massive demolitions begun during 1984. In this decayed zone, inhabitants, artists, musicians and actors have initiated several alternative cultural movements: “Sensitive mapping” (2006), “Jam sessions”, “Laboratory Urban Mobil” (2008-2010), “Parade of evacuated women” (2010), “Improvisations on generosity” (2010-11), “Day of the quarter” (2011), etc. These events (re)create a history of the place, trying to raise some interest beyond the classification: “local value – class B”.

This quarter is part of a larger zone of empty fields and abandoned houses from the centre of Bucharest. The intersection of Uranus and Rahova streets in fact marks the meeting place between two directions of implosion of the urban pattern: to the North, the direction B.P. Hasdeu – Berzei – Buzesti and to the East, the loose parts left behind the housing blocks built along the Unirii Boulevard. To a foreign eye, these zones seem to be remains left over from a gloomy film set. Deserted houses, ruins swallowed by weeds, tall fences marking some isolated nouveau-riche properties, create ghostly features forbidding access and absorbing the pavements.

Finding my way through the Zone, I thought that only the thread of a monumental action could give sense to these deserted places. Let’s suppose that one day, absurdly, all this wasteland (Maidan) of Bucharest is inscribed on a list X and declared Cultural heritage. Then, all construction would be forbidden because the wasteland should be preserved with its status of everybody’s land and of no use at all. A recollection route could start in streets with memorable names: Strada Mântuleasa, Labirint, Parfumului, Popa Soare, etc. and could continue the thread of some forgotten stories. We could then imagine a unique urban pattern with many pokets decorated with nettles and dirt pushing up farytales with firedrakes.

The SUDAC factory before conversion, architects, G. Le Bris, J. Leclaire, 1891

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