Based in Chisinau, Moldova, Oberliht works with artists and universities to challenge thinking about public space and democratic participation in the post-Soviet city. Co-founded in 2000 by a collective of artists, its activities are still coordinated by a member of that group, Vladimir Us; the rest of the team will expand and contract depending on the programme, rising to perhaps 10 people, all working part-time. Its turnover is less than €50,000 a year, of which roughly 10% is received from the state and local foundations, and roughly 50% via the EU, although for the past three years it has primarily been supported by the European Cultural Foundation.
Mission: opening public spaces
Oberliht’s mission has shifted since it was established in 2000 by a group of students and emerging artists seeking to develop professional careers in a local and international context. Although the group dispersed after five years of shaping exhibitions and projects together, artist and curator Vladimir Us kept the association going, retaining that initial objective but also “updating our interests in terms of topics that we would like to deal with. One of the central topics is public space transformations in Chisinau and other post-Soviet cities: rethinking the design of cultural spaces in public spaces, and reinforcing this culture infrastructure as part of the democratic infrastructure.”
One of the changes Us has witnessed since the dismantling of the Soviet Union is an “intense process of commercialisation of public spaces. So we try to regain access to social and cultural spaces and bring back some of those lost functionalities – so that the city is not just for commerce, but also for other types of encounters and experiences, which could be important for the society to develop democratically. At the level of infrastructure, we try to recreate those spaces, so as to give the city a cultural functionality; and at the level of activities, we support artists working in public space to meet an audience in the city.”
The new cultural models Oberliht is seeking to build are far removed from Soviet state control of art and culture. By “rethinking the way cultural solutions are working, how culture can develop outside official spaces, and providing more freedom to artists”, Us argues that other transformations can follow, including: “better governance, more participatory mechanisms for people to be able to influence the process of decision-making, higher democratic indicators. Those are the benefits of having public spaces.” Importantly, this work is “not in opposition to the state: it is a parallel to the state”.
Chisinau makes a good “case study” because it is disproportionately large for the size of the country: “We don’t even have four million people in Moldova, but in Chisinau there’s almost one million. Everything is concentrated here, and by observing how the city works and transforms, you can understand how the nation works.”
“We don’t even have four million people in Moldova, but in Chisinau there’s almost one million. Everything is concentrated here, and by observing how the city works and transforms, you can understand how the nation works.”
Through its artist in residency programme, Oberliht is able to absorb multiple perspectives on the relationship between democratic participation and the cultural uses of public space. “Different countries’ public space works differently and has different qualities. For us it’s a learning experience because the people usually see our spaces with new, different eyes.”
“Different countries’ public space works differently and has different qualities. For us it’s a learning experience because the people usually see our spaces with new, different eyes.”
Where the artists come from stretches from Sweden to Tajikistan, via Hungary and Armenia, and depends on “funding sources and partnerships”, which also affects the length of the residency: “It makes sense to stay at least two weeks, but one to three months is optimal.” Because each work deals with “local realities”, ideally, each artist should have enough time to “get to know the local situation and propose something that would fit that particular frame”.
Oberliht also aims “to invite the same artists again and again, to develop longer-term relationships”. One such is with studioBASAR, an architectural collective from Bucharest: initially they were invited to give workshops at the local technical university, but for the past five years they have come to Chisinau annually to “design new functions for public spaces and build small structures to accommodate different events and artists”. For instance, it has cleaned up an abandoned pool and transformed it into an open-air cinema, and has supported Oberliht in the renovation of a park by designing a stage built there.
A small organisation with many partners
Partnership working supports Oberliht’s activities in two other key ways:
1: University connections
“We organise a lot of educational activities – workshops, seminars, conferences, summer schools – in the art academy, the technical university, where we meet students of architecture and urban planning, and several other universities with students studying anthropology and cultural management. We motivate them to get engaged in these issues that we are developing.” These partnerships are also vital in developing research activities, which “becomes more and more important, because researchers can provide more elaborate arguments for the acts we might produce or take in the city. The research takes different forms: often it is visual research, with photographers documenting certain specific transformations. But it’s mainly about different types of arguments for a more democratic, open and accessible city.”
2: Volunteer support
Oberliht has always relied on volunteers since its days as a collective of unpaid artists; but as the organisation has developed, it has “tried to formalise this activity so that it is one of our values”. Primarily it collaborates with the European Voluntary Service network, which helps in making Oberliht “more internationally connected” and has led to the development of new youth/arts/culture-related projects as many of the volunteers retain the association after their period of work ends.
One of the challenges Oberliht faces is a hangover of Soviet state relations with the arts: “The Cultural Department is really closed off, and there is still this model of public ensembles or public artistic groups whose salaries and costs are paid. That’s limited to a specific number of institutions, and although there is funding for collaborative projects there is no open call or transparent procedure. Independent culture is not perceived as a partner by municipals.”
Without that steady financial support, Oberliht is unable to “build a permanent team. We always have to be creative and inventive and open to newcomers, and to rebuild the organisation, depending on the new people who come, because as an organisation we cannot provide full-time jobs or salaries.”
That same struggle for existence is reflected in wider Chisinau society, and affects Oberliht’s relationship with the public. “People are supportive, but most of them are struggling with basic existence questions, which don’t allow them to engage in a more demanding process: they can’t really find the necessary time to become more actively involved.” Although Oberliht has strong relationships with specific professional communities – involved in, for instance, architecture, culture or activism – when it comes to the general public: “Often it’s the children who have more time and will engage in activities.”
“People are supportive, but most of them are struggling with basic existence questions, which don’t allow them to engage in a more demanding process: they can’t really find the necessary time to become more actively involved.”
Most of Oberliht’s “interventions in the city” are temporary – but “some of those temporary structures last quite long”. In 2009, for instance, it built “an outdoor structure which resembles a Soviet flat, but without external walls”: called Flat Space project, this offered a physical platform for independent culture in the middle of the city, and from April to October each year is still being filled with a programme of film screenings, concerts, talks and presentations. Almost a decade later, Oberliht is now seeking “to redesign the square where the structure is: it’s occupied by cars as a kind of illegal parking lot, but we want to make it pedestrian, so the whole square can become a bigger cultural space”. This is typical of the way Oberliht seeks to keep returning to places it works: “We leave traces and try to make work on the longer term to see what difference that can make.”
“We leave traces and try to make work on the longer term to see what difference that can make.”
On a macro level, what Oberliht is seeking is “a new way of governance”, and although such change is hard to evaluate (hence the commitment to research), Us does point to “one of our recent little victories”: the creation of a “participatory budget” in the local municipality, through which “anyone could propose something to the municipality, to improve the neighbourhood situation or to create a new space”. Previously the municipality offered its inhabitants no such opportunities, and Us argues that doing so “creates stronger relations between inhabitants and authorities”.
Oberliht’s plans for the future are substantial. It wants to begin working in specific residential areas, thinking about “what kind of cultural needs are there, and what kind of cultural infrastructure could respond to those needs”. In terms of its relationship with universities, it’s interested in developing a formal masters programme at the art academy. A priority in terms of its work with emerging artists and the independent cultural community is the creation of “a cultural centre with space for artistic production and meetings with the public”; Us hopes this will combine indoors and outdoors, a building element but also “developing in a public space” – although another option under consideration is “a mobile cultural centre that could travel through different neighbourhoods and allow artists to work in those areas”. Finally, “on the level of the policies, we hope to have a more open city structure and more resources allocated for the development of public spaces” – resources which would, of course, enable Oberliht’s own work to develop.
Image: Zaikin Park (2016) – a park for the community. Oberliht