Karina and Paulina talk about press freedom with Dan Perjovschi. He visited our university a few weeks ago, and still his critical, simple and straightforward art remains on the inside walls of the building. With reference to the event of the Right Livelihood College about press freedom tomorrow (April 1st), Dan Perjovschi tells us something about his experiences with press- and artistic freedom as well as his opinion on and experience with censorship.
Looking at your art, there is an obvious link to political issues. As you also write and work for a newspaper, we asked ourselves if you consider yourself more as a journalist or as an artist. How do you see yourself? Do you think these functions are overlapping?
Officially I’m a journalist (shows his press card). You don’t have a card for being an artist, right? The job as an artist does not exist, just the journalist. Anyway, it turned to be the best business I’ve ever made in my life, because I enter for free in all the museums. Well… I’m both, journalist and artist. I’m primarily an artist but I started my freedom to express in journalism. After the dictatorship in Rumania, there was a boom. It was the first time you could print something without censorship and it was fantastic. The galleries could not cope with that. Visual art needed more time to have interesting events in galleries. Twenty years ago, there were founded new newspapers every week. I started to illustrate one of these weekly magazines.
We found a study telling that three quarters of the Rumanian population does not trust the official media anymore. Some refer to the media structure, which is owned by singular political and rich oligarchs. With the access to internet new possibilities to report independently are getting more and more popular. Could you compare the lack of trust in Rumania and the tendencies of low trust in quality journalism in Germany or do you see clear differences?
There are a lot of differences. You are still benefiting from amazing newspapers. Apparently, they are serious enough in a mainstream way. Nothing to compare to my country. In Rumania, it’s like you said, the private-public TV is owned by politicians. They are brainwashing the people and people watch it, because it’s the cheapest entertainment. They watch all day long. Also, because there are a lot of shows, where the level of vulgarity is enormous and the way women are represented is unacceptable. While people watch these crazy shows, they are captive. If they put political statements in between, it is possible to bring people’s opinion in one direction and frame.
Let me give you an example. After the fall of dictatorship at the beginning of the nineties, the persons who got power were the second layer of the communists. Students started to protest at the famous University square, that is comparable with Taksim in Istanbul. We occupied it for three months and it turned to a section of the city, where there was free speech. It was fantastic! What we demanded was to have an alternative television, because we had only one at that time. Reports of that square were completely manipulated. I remember my mom telling me to stay away from there, because it was supposed to be drugs everywhere. This were all lies. They constantly showed this to the rest of the people on TV, lying in your face.
We heard that there is one TV-Channel that is a foundation of independent journalists, that is financed by donations…
I don’t think it’s a TV-Channel. There is some online journalism, which is financed by people like us giving fife euros per month. They are doing very great effort and they may have some video content, but it’s not actually a TV-station.
In the nineties we had that protest, and now, three weeks ago, we had a massive protest again. Two of six news channels reported equilibrated. The rest took just party against the protest, so it hasn’t changed much since 1990. You have the alternative of livestreaming through phones though. That’s something we didn’t have 27 years ago. They could have literally killed us and nobody would have known it. This is not possible anymore, because they film the policemen. This is different now, but in a general view the manipulation continues. There are people, who prefer to watch TV to get the news they want to hear.
Would you say people trust more the information from the internet?
There is a generation gap. Persons under 40 probably trust more alternative information, like the Facebook from friends or certain Media. We had the same discussion as in the States: how to separate fake news from real news. The reaction to this was censorship. They use it in a way to say what is true or not. And we ask for giving us a chance to doublecheck at least. Let me put it in another way, people believe in TV, because most the Rumanians are old. The younger people are working in Italy or Spain and the old people are used to look at old media – TV-Stations.
On the one hand, we think internet seems to be a good opportunity to build a global network and to think globally, but on the other hand we personally suggest a problem coming up with this. People might use global arguments they find in the internet, but they take them out of context and do not transfer them to the local structure, political processes and culture. Would you consider your art as an helping bridge to overcome this kind of problems?
Look at these drawings, they look as if they were very simple, but there is no easy answer to something. Of course, it’s much more complex than that. It is a simple drawing here, but it is more complex on the surrounding where I put the newspaper. If you want you can read all the text, there are several layers of content. In the last 27 years, I became a master of producing very simple Images using humor, using paradoxes and using stereotypes. I try to make something, which is brakes but somehow connect issues at the same time. I mean, it’s not my heart that is breaking in “You brex my heart”. It is theirs, they must solve it. I don’t define my drawings as cartoons, because they don’t criticize. I try to give you another view. They are not offending or polarizing images in black or white. It is way more complex than that, like when you take something and put it in a context and it doesn’t work, without surrounding the history.
Where would you see the edge between freedom of opinion and art and how do you cope with it?
I test the edges. One thing I have learned is that the moment you have the freedom to express, you also have the responsibility for it. We must finally define, are we creating some basic rules or do we leave the people negotiate the edges? What is more free for me may offend you, but if we agree that the edge is rather a territory than a line, then we can work. I have experienced censorship in my life and the censorship they employed in the society I grew up was not a list of what you can do and what you can’t do. It was a foggy, so you had to presume what they would censor. Can you imagine poetry like this? What will happen to the US is not very clear… You should decide for yourself and for your group what you can address and what you cannot address.
But it can have consequences for you…
All the time. But we live in a society that doesn’t come to shoot us. Maybe you lose your job, maybe the sponsor will pull out the money but that’s it. In my country, political correctness discourse was taken hard and they thought it was a set of rules like in communism. But the real fact is we need to unite. You need to structure how you can address. You need to know when you cross the line.
You could say that this male politician in the US is stupid, but if you say this female politician is stupid, then you stay there and you can read it in a different way. There are more acceptable and more … you must know a little bit of society. I always give this example: I was at Moskau Biennale in 2007 and I am in a very good relation with my curators. I don’t like them to be in trouble, because this international artist comes and plants a bomb. Then the bomb explodes and somebody will lose his job or whatever. I asked what was a problem in Russia at that moment. They told me: “Do whatever you like, but don’t touch the orthodox church.” I knew that this was the limit, so I could play with the limit. I drew an orthodox church and a mosk asking each other if they like sushi. It’s not criticizing religion but it’s about categories. This is a way to define limits and to pass them. In the Arab countries, literally you can have four wives. I drew a character saying “give me 5”. This is my style; I can play a little bit with this limit. It’s not my task though. My task is to find images, which people can resonate with.
Question: Talking about how you select your works, we saw that you have a “horizontal newspaper” in your hometown Sibiu. It is a large wall along a public street, where you steadily add and remove content. How did it come that you chose this place, considering that Trump, for example, is talking about a separating wall. What is your symbolic understanding of it?
I was born in 1961, the year the Berlin wall was erected. I was born and made myself artist on the side without graffiti. You couldn’t touch the wall because the Soviets would kill you. Now I can have my own wall and I draw to fill this memory… Joke. The real story is that I was super active abroad and I wanted to show presence in Rumania while I develop this international career. This is a special wall in Sibiu, it is on the edge of the center and touristic old town and the working-class town nobody cares. Frankly I did that in 2010 and somehow it kept going. I don’t know how to stop this project.
Are there people that add something to your drawings?
There was a very bad tag, which said “me, my city”, but I don’t care about this, so I erased it. The guy came back and wrote “tag, tag, tag, tag”, that was good, so I tried to make it like a kind of a conversation. Here I do this exhibition. You know I’m an artist, there’s a CV, there is an entire apparatus around me to value me as somebody important. In Sibiu on the wall – nothing. Some people don’t like it at all. Some people don’t understand it; some people love it.
I watch how people watch if they don’t like it or if they just walk by. I’m constantly confronted with my own failure then, daily. It’s a good feedback for me, I can test it all the time. People have their own philosophy. Some make selfies. They select one drawing to do the selfie and I can map how people react and which drawing they like. I learn somehow from the communication.
You always have a little notebook with you and when you have an idea or a conversation you write it down. Then you look it up again and again…
Well there is a lot of recycling in my projects. If the topics still fit, it can be one same drawing travelling in a year to many walls. And I carry the Notebook to catch new ones, to experiment, to… Simplicity doesn’t come out of nothing. Sometimes it takes 200 drawings to find one good one. Same with redrawing. You draw and draw until it becomes a simple a precise form. I studied twelve years how to paint still living things. I learned to paint dead things and ended as a boring painter. My art is a reaction to that. I want to destroy everything and unlearn. I can mistake mistakes and its totally ok. I’m free of the terror some people have when they do art. There are some people that collapse when something is one millimeter on the false side. You don’t have to be a genius to put drawings on a wall. I try to focus on ideas and not on skills. That liberates me in my time for thinking.
What’s your thought about the fact that we had to remove our paintings for yours? Is it censorship?
Basically, I didn’t ask for that. I am adaptable. Being honest I would have preferred the wall made by you first. Now it’s the opposite, I planted some drawings and you must think how to continue. What will you do? Will you erase it? Will you put party announcements or will you erase just the drawings about economics and capitalism? Honestly, I would like to come back and to see, if I can work with the new statements. But in general, I’m suspicious, because I don’t like other people’s drawings. They don’t think much, when they express. But it’s up to the next to integrate or erase or whatever. Only if near my drawings there is a racist or xenophobic statement, they should erase it, I would censor it. That’s my line.
Thank you so much for visiting our university and for this interview!