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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hot Air Project Background

In June 2009 I wrote a grant proposal requesting funding assistance for a project commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime in Romania. The following is an excerpt from the grant proposal:
Toward the end of December in 1989 an unusually warm weather pattern settled over Timisoara, Romania. Normally the temperatures in this region average at 3° C/37° F for this time of year. However, in the week from December 15th to the 22nd, which was to be remarkable in many other ways, the daily temperatures reached much higher (up to 18° C/64° F). It’s likely that this warmth assisted the brewing political revolution by allowing greater numbers of people to be out on the streets for long periods of time, raising each other’s courage to stand against the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceausecu. The temperatures helped people withstand the water from the fire hoses of the riot police trying to disperse the growing crowds. It also allowed for more elderly people and children to populate the squares giving a more complete and powerful image of the citizenry to itself and the world beyond. And it is likely, too, that the temperature outdoors those days and nights was more comfortable than that indoors due to the government’s newly implemented system of heat rationing, that extraordinarily cruel practice of reducing the temperature of the hot water coming from the city’s central heating plants, which made average winter-time indoor temperatures a frigid 8° C/46° F. (Siani-Davies. p. 253)

The presence of unexpected warmth (outdoors) coupled with the missing expected warmth (indoors) cannot possibly cause or even trigger a political revolution 43 years in the making. It is, for sure, quite a small fact in a very big story, but perhaps a critical one. The ability to be on the street and, more importantly, to stay on the street for a long period of time contributed significantly to the uprising in Timisoara. On December 16th several hundred people had gathered at the home of priest Laszlo Tokes to block his deportation. The longer they stayed the more the crowd and the fervor grew. With each ensuing day, regardless of the government’s violent attempts at dispersal, the city’s largest public square (Opera Plaza), where the protests finally moved, became more and more full, the rhetoric more and more heated. Shouts had changed from “We are not leaving!” to “Down with Ceausescu!” On December 20th the city of Timisoara was officially declared to be in a state of emergency. The inability of the government to remove its citizens from the street constituted a loss of control and ultimately a loss of the government itself.

Opera Square (later renamed Piata Victoriei, Victory Square)
17 December 1989
Or did it? The Romanian Revolution in 1989 was one of the most contested changes of power in the Eastern Bloc that year. In the end, many weren’t sure they even wanted to call it a revolution [1]. The controversies surrounding the events in Romania are twofold. On the one hand much scorn has been directed at the methods used to popularize and promulgate the revolution as it was occurring. In particular, the revolutionaries are criticized for the widespread use of popular media, especially television, to greatly exaggerate the spectacle in order to create and then manipulate the sympathetic international viewership. The most egregious transgressions occurred in the reporting of casualties both in numerical data [2] and, even more dramatically, in staged images [3].

On the other hand, and to a much larger extent, the Romanian revolution has been repeatedly denounced on the basis of its evinced results, or lack there of. The modern idea that a revolution should be, rather than restorative as the name implies (Arendt), transformative and liberating, has been standing model since the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth centuries. This model suggests deep ideological shifts along with the obvious changes of leadership personnel. In Romania, what may have started as a legitimate popular rebellion has not been fully trusted because the leadership that immediately took over was comprised of people formerly a part of the old regime. Whether this reversion was pre-planned or resulted from an opportunistic hijacking midstream is less relevant than the resulting sense of governmental treachery that plagued the country then and now, simply more hot air. Nevertheless, the leaders have been freely elected implying that their governmental experience has at minimum placated the domestic revolutionary demands for democracy.

"The astounding truth of the matter is that much of the glorious Romanian ‘Revolution’ was, in fact, a staged play, a revolution between quotation marks. Let me also say for all that, there were heroes, martyrs, and true revolutionaries. A mass uprising did take place, but it was skillfully manipulated by the men who run Romania today.” (Codrescu, 1991, p.205)

So, there was a revolution... and there wasn’t. Even now, twenty years later, this continues to be the prime debate. Consider the title of the recent Romanian movie, A Fost sau n-a Fost? (Literally: It Was or it Wasn’t?) But is this the only lasting residue – whether it happened or not – as if this could be resolved with a neat yes or no anyway? If we continue to compare the Romanian events of 1989 to those two hundred years prior, it’s likely we will not find apt parallels to consider it a genuine revolution. And yet blood was spilled, leaderships changed hands, and ideological aspirations drifted toward democracy. How should the memory of the revolutionary events of December 1989 be honored twenty years later? The lasting legacy of the Romanian revolution does not grow out of anything that did (or did not) happen in December 1989, but rather out of the fact that it could happen at all.


HOT AIR is the proposal for the temporary installation of a large inflatable and inhabitable monument in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Romanian revolution. Its site is intended to be in Piata Vicoriei, Timisoara, an expansive public space and site of the first large demonstrations that lead to the fall of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. The monument is meant to be playful and wondrous: large enough to be inhabited by visitors to the site but lightweight enough to be easily shipped internationally, readily mounted on site, and perhaps moved about. It will be constructed of heat-sealed polyethylene plastic sheeting, anchored, and inflated with household fans circulating enough warm air pressure to keep it structurally afloat. It will be erected and remain open throughout the duration of the American-Romanian Music Festival: Nov 1-5, 2009 (dates to be confirmed). It will be a venue for visitation by the public, small concerts, planned talks, and impromptu events. Schedules and updates for the events will be announced via traditional media, social network sites, and text messaging networks. At the end of the festival HOT AIR will journey back to the United States for exhibition on the campus of the University of Michigan.

HOT AIR is not meant to valorize the revolution or admonish the subsequent usurpations. Such works have already been and will continue to be created. Rather, HOT AIR is envisioned as a celebration - a making of an object/space (and series of events) - inspired by the improbable and infectious spirit of the 1989 uprising that changed the course of history. The lasting legacy, and therefore the object of the memorialization here, is the possibility that lies in collective action and the less-than-perfect results. The contradictions of optimism AND instability inherent in Romania’s political change are reflected in the mass, material, and construction of a symbolic image filled with HOT AIR.
collage of design proposal
[1]   Many authors have referred to the Romanian revolution as a Coup d’etat, a Palace Coup, and an insurrection
[2]   By December 18th some domestic news outlets were reporting as many as 10,000 dead in Timisoara alone. On December 24th the figure had risen to 60,000 across the entire country and was used as factual evidence against Ceausescu in his pre-execution trial. In the end however, the official total death counts for the revolution average are 689 dead and 1200 wounded for the entire country. (Codrescu 1991 and Siani-Davies)
[3]  Photographs and videos were shot of bodies dug out of public cemeteries and positioned to look as if they had been massacred the day before.

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