In Conversation with Alexandru Berceanu

Alexandru is Mixing Realities Director
Born, living and locked down in Bucharest, Romania.

‘We are so much based on vision that we are so much forgetting the other senses. In a conference call you do not have vision in fact, you just have something like a face forward mugshot… Our sense of time is very much embedded with all the other senses, this is why when we reduce the inputs on some of the senses we become lost in time.’

I met Alex in 2015 through the TANDEM Turkey program when we collaborated on the writing of an original text and its production in İstanbul and Bucharest and spent a lot of time together in various cities and occasions. He is co-founder of DramAcum, which featured a lot of Romania’s new wave of playwrights. His works, which incorporate many disciplines and mediums have been featured in many international festivals and won awards. He is also the initiator of Bucharest’s amazing research center on innovative and creative technologies, CINETic and I truly admire and a bit envy the works he creates and facilitates there. 

Alex has a way of approaching everything he does with great diligence and curiosity and has a fluid sense of connection with people. This correspondence has been a great pleasure for me to reconnect with him through not only performance-related discussions on issues such as presence, virtuality and senses but also personal insights about where we are at in the world.

This correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Alexandru Berceanu from May 4 to September 17, 2020 through email and messenger.

From: Fatih Genckal
To: Alexandru Berceanu

Sent: Monday, 4 May 2020 00.04

Dear Alexandru,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Alexandru Berceanu 4 May 2020 11:31
Hi Fatih, thank you so much!
With me, I am closer than ever to my small family. I did not spent so much time with them and at home never (or since my own childhood). Until now I think the longest period of being uninterruptedly with them. I have two daughters and of course Andreea, my wife. Somehow life went slower which is not so bad. Around me, by now I feel there are lot of people very anxious with going on with their lives. Sometimes, you get the feeling of being trapped even if everything is so pleasant at home. Sometimes I get the feeling that everything is very wrong, like it is an unreal world. Like you had an accident and you are in coma and everything moves on but you are left behind. And then I get to weird ideas about testing the hypothesis. In principle it’s a good sign that you wrote me, coma would not be something that comes in my mind, but then you get scared, you know a lot of stuff gets into your mind when you are dreaming, even things you did not think for a long time can come to your mind… I know that this is a common feeling nowadays, one of my students works on a project on a book of dreams and he told us that he has the same type of feelings… My mother told me the same, that sometimes she expects to wake up and to find out that it was just a dream. Do you have this kind of feeling?

Fatih Genckal 4 May 2020 14:50
It’s curious that your title on your email signature is Mixing Realities Director -different than what it was since I last wrote you- and you are talking about this! I somehow feel that it is a dream I don’t want to wake up from and see that it was all a dream and things go on as ‘normal’. I wonder if it is the same with you, that this is a sign that you don’t actually want it to be just a dream. I realize most of us who have the luxury to be confined at home and to enjoy it have a tendency to make the most of this time and hope for a transformation. Do you think we can actually take on this challenge of transformation or are we simply happy with our little corners within the bugs of the system? Right now, the old normal is the predictable situation we know but what can transformation bring is a big question.

Alexandru Berceanu 6 May 2020 23:29
I really hope that it will not be any strong transformation. I really think that we are not prepared for a transformation and that if it will be imposed by the course of events it can be quite hurtful. I think I am very priviledged and for a lot of people it is already very hard.
It is a strange coincidence my signature. Exactly before the stay at home orders I started a kind of personal evaluation and I felt in between realities and I got to the idea of aknowledging them.
I think however it is a very inspiring time for the future but people need time for change otherwise it can hurt badly.

Fatih Gençkal 7 May 2020 14:01
Why do you think we are not prepared? How can we be prepared?

Alexandru Berceanu 12 May 2020 23:30
That’s funny. Of course you are never prepared for a big change. It is like being prepared for a revolution…
I think, as a society and probably as a species we are not prepared for a  a digital revolution… some probably are some probably wish it.
As a species we are not prepared because we are so much embedded in our physical bodies. All our emotions and the way we deal with them are dependent on the relationship  of body with space. I am not sure that we can judge very well right from wrong and truth from lie in the digital environment.
As a society, economical discrepancy is so big and disparities are huge. I have a strong internet connection at home, we can have four video calls at the same time… I can teach from home and work for a lot of my projects but if I think about my students, not all of my students have always access to a computer…
This brings a huge segregation, between people who can work from home and people who can not… And of course it depends a lot on what you are thinking that could change. For now it’s only a bit slower and this seems a bit good…

Fatih Gençkal 13 May 2020 15:30
Yes, I understand what you are saying. I was actually thinking more about a transformation of the systems, especially economic that we live in, the discrepancies and disparities of which the pandemic seems to reveal. I have been hoping that they may go through some major restructuring as people realize this more. That is why I feel the so-called normalization efforts in fashion these days look like attempts by governments to save the system without really changing the essence of it that causes these injustices. Would you agree? And do you think we can resist this?

Alexandru Berceanu 13 May 2020 23:04
I think in the long run this experience of collective vulnerability will  bring huge changes. I think people in general never felt so globally vulnerable. It is really unprecedented the speed with which this illness threatened and killed prime ministers, movie stars and all of us… I think the first reaction was one of high self protection and it was really amazing to see how the global reaction of a lockdown inspired by the Chinese approach spread to most of the world. Somehow this made us feel important, the economy stopped because people might die. That was really empowering. Somebody should, at some point, make a ratio of how much money were lost by the economy and how many lives saved.
Now the global movement is changing. Even if we have a lot more cases globally then at the time the lockdown started,  almost everywhere gradually the lockdown is ending. In case of a new rise in cases we do not know if lockdown measures will be reinstated. We can dream that this illness will make us better but generally crisis do not bring very fast more equal opportunities.
I read recently an article about one of the books which intrigued me the most, to such a level that I had to make a performance out of it, like a lot of others: Lord of the flies. The article from the Guardian was stating that in the real life a group of ten teenagers when they found themselves in the same condition as the heroes of the book actually helped each other  and stayed friends forever without any Hobbesian Leviathan to prevent them from wrong doing. The story was in the news, several times but  it it never got the attention of Lord of the Flies which of course is an exciting novel… So we can really have reasons to dream about catastrophes which bring the best out of us but it seems a good idea to tell a lot of bedtime stories to keep us on the good track.

Fatih Gençkal 14 May 2020 15:28
That’s a good point. I saw that article too. It made me think of what causes a good or a bad outcome. Yes, the point you make about bedtime stories is nice. On the other hand, I thought, a different group might have had a Lord of the Flies experience still. And the bad usually and unfortunately overshadows the good. What causes this? I think any attempt for a better world must first address the inherent systemic inequalities somehow, which cause what we label good or bad here.
Do you want to change the subject and talk about the art scene in Bucharest? I suppose theaters, galleries etc have been shut down. How are people coping? Is there any support mechanism for them? What are some of the hot topics floating around?

Alexandru Berceanu 14 May 2020 18:11
Yes, everything is closed down… for two months already. Next week museums are supposed to be back.We had two major initiatives, one for giving a financial aid for people who can prove that they worked in the last time as artists and are not employed, it was a complicated procedure but I think a lot of people got help. Also we had a fast call for small grants to produce artworks for online. A lot of current grants agreed to have some of the activities online… Some of the theatres started making online performances, at the beginning even in real time, it was emotional. Then after the curfew just prerecorded. Somehow it was even more emotional. One of my performances Schrodinger’s Cat, at unteatru was recorded exactly in the last day before the curfew and than transmitted some weeks after. It was very strong to see the eyes of the actors after the performance, when they went for curtain call… They were really  emotioned, had all the intensity of a performance,  looking for the presence they are used to, knowing that nobody is there, hoping that somebody will watch them, later… I think this type of delicate confirmation from a live performance you can not replace it. Of course you can be successful online, have a lot likes and shares but the fragility of direct confirmation, seeing the eyes which saw you… Online takes out a lot of the vulnerability of the live actor which so extraordinary.

Fatih Gençkal 16 May 2020 14:58
As a theater-maker but also a mixing realities director, what kind of work do you think can resonate at this time? I understand the irreplaceable live impact you are mentioning, but how do you think theater can incorporate other forms of contact? I think there might be a potential for exploration and growth here.

Alexandru Berceanu 17 May 2020 10:35
I spend so much time in zoom, google and in front of computer that I dream just about nice one on one performance…I got such craving for direct contact.I am however very interested about people interacting with robots, my next performance will be on this. Also at some of the meetings I started having people coming as digital avatars, they are for sure fun to watch… nice motion tracking… The perspectives of the digital are fascinating but now I think even more about one of my most dear performances in a house in Columbus Ohio done by Woman at Play. They welcomed the  audience with a brownie, then you watched a Renoir mystery drama in a bourgeois house with a grand piano… You really had the feeling of being present.
In one of the studies we are making now for my research work, we do an online theatrical intervention. We do mirroring exercises, role play but we also use smells for triggering memories… I think now it is even more emotional and powerful than usual. I think I am fascinated by extending presence at distance…

Fatih Gençkal 17 May 2020 17:13
One of the things I was quite obsessed with about the digital presence in the beginning of the lockdown was the senses. In physical contact, we have 5 senses at play but the online inevitable diminishes it down to 2: seeing and hearing. So we lose a lot of information. I, then realized how much theater normally depends on these 2 senses anyway. And I was curious how the other 3 senses can be explored more in theater. How are you using smell for instance, in an online theatrical intervention?

Alexandru Berceanu 18 May 2020 10:23
The use of smell in the experiment is very basic. You put some samples in a jar like  orange peel, vinegar, dried plant tea and then when the experimenter tells you you open the jar take a breath and start telling your memories connected with that smell.
Some years ago in an April fools day, after google launched the searching service based on image, they posted that they launched google smell, a web based app that transmits smells with the aid of the computer. Google image search was very rapidly closed due to legal, ethical and privacy concerns. What would be if you could smell with the computer the person with which you’re talking to? The question is not if it is possible but when it will be feasible will it be integrated or it will be considered redundant and not subject of interest? We are so much based on vision that we are so much forgetting the other senses. In a conference call you do not have vision in fact, you just have something like a face forward mugshot. If you watch Star Wars they have full body holograms and this is very important you can see the posture of the person we are talking. The webcam forces us to be so much in the desk position… But you know that actually we have a lot more than the five senses, proprioception, interoception equilibrium, temperature, perception of time with a strong circadian rhythm and some have the sense of humor… In VR you can play nicely with equilibrium and proprioception… Our sense of time is very much embedded with all the other senses, this is why when we reduce the inputs on some of the senses we become lost in time.
If you put a Foucault lecture on this you can become very scared in your quarantined apartment. And if you did not read him you feel it instinctively.  This is why so many people are so paranoid at this time. If you speak with a lot of people they would ask if covid is true. Is it the same in Turkey? That was a very common experience in the lockdown time.
By the way in Romania we got out of the lockdown. My parents were here for a visit and a walk. That made us really very happy. It was an event.

Fatih Gençkal 19 May 2020 15:10
I love the point you make about the sense of smell, whether it would be redundant in the dominance of the visual. The virtual space is intensifying this dominance, I think, and we feel it more now during lockdown because we spend much more of our socializing time there. I’ve been particularly sensitive to a loss of sense of time in this process. Just this morning, I felt completely out of date and time and had a hard time remembering what I did yesterday. The presence I feel online is like a non-presence somehow. This is a general feeling with VR kind of things for me as well, though. It is still very much based on sight and feels almost like a tricking of the senses and the mind. Maybe I need a break from visual over-stimulus for a while. I read an article the other day about how the impact of the virus is being extremely over-exaggerated by the media. It gives a lot of reference to peer-reviewed journal articles and respected scientists and says that the infectiousness and the fatality rate of the virus is not so different than a regular flu and much lower than what the media says. There is this conspiracy tone to it which I am always suspicious about. But on the other hand, what do I know? What do we know? I felt quite helpless and useless.
Anyway, here we are in normalization process. Here, lockdown is also being loosened, some places are reopening. There is still curfew in the weekends and national holidays. Since when lockdown was lifted there? How is the situation now?

Alexandru Berceanu 24 May 2020 22:04
People are wandering around, no malls, no theatre no cinema, no restaurant… Lot’s of food. It was nice today, we live near a park and local council decided to close some streets around the park so they do not get overcrowded. It was really nice to see people on the street (a lot more than usual, it’s a quiet street). I think this type of panic is quite normal somehow. Also people from governments panic.
How are you? Beside these interviews, what are you working on? What where your plans before this?

Fatih Gençkal 25 May 2020 13:18
I was actually in the middle of a very exciting project that I started with an artist in Diyarbakır, southeast of Turkey, based on our biographic stories and arts practices. We met in an artists residency there and I asked him to work together. The pandemic precautions actually started on the day I came back from our first residency together in Diyarbakır -March 15. We were supposed to spend 2 more residency periods together and do a preview of our performance in mid-June. The project is on hold now. We were also planning a spring festival at the end of May with A Corner in the World but that is also cancelled. Now, we are working on an online platform to continue some of the things we do. Today is bayram, the Ramadan holiday. The country is in lockdown and no one can go out and visit family. After the holiday, many places will be open with limitations. Not theaters. Inter-city travel is still only possible upon strict authorization. I think in mid-June they will allow it with restrictions: you will have to get a code to get on a bus or plane and they will track you to see if you get sick. If you do, they will let all the people in the same bus/plane etc know that they are under risk and should be quarantined. This code will also be used in work and public spaces. A basic way of monitoring and tracking. A surveillance society that many people fear might be the ‘new normal’. It also sounds quite distopic to me. Do you have this kind of thing in Romania? What do you think about this surveillance discussion?

Alexandru Berceanu 28 May 2020 22:28
I am sory for the project I hope you will restart working soon on it. I think everybody misses festivals.
Code sick. Sick code. We do not have this for the moment.
I think now they plan to open open air bars and even shoping malls.
I do not read anymore so much the news on corona.
They are sad.

Fatih Gençkal 31 May 2020 15:54
Is there anything that you have been working on during this time or any projects coming up for you?

Alexandru Berceanu 1 Jun 2020 16:30
Lots of projects to come. I am very looking forward to a performance for october where it is a great team, and we will work on the idea of interactions with machines, very much based of movement. A lot about expectations and frustrations… We will start also call for an online collaboration project with some researchers from CINETic and artists for an online intractive artwork. Also a documentation process for a museum of the future at a science park. Some research plans for the theatre methodology for an fMRI study lots of exciting things, I can’t wait to really do them. Lots of projects…
The most important is yet spending time with my daughter Ivona, she has an exam in two weeks for high school. It was very good for us this time. We got to feel each other a lot more. And actually I got one of my most intense moments, I got recently a record player and last year I bought a Croation edit of Wish You Were Here, by my favourite band since I was 14 or 15 and it was the first time I played it. I found 100 Kuna in the cover. And then surprisingly, my daughter shouted from her room that she likes the music, they are cool. And then she came and took me dancing. I was very happy. A bit bitter realising that I did not dance for a long time, but very very happy.

Fatih Gençkal 4 Jun 2020 11:31
It must be a beautiful moment. Send my best to Ivona and keep dancing=)Are these projects planned during the pandemic and designed for the ambiguous situation we are in? They seem to be quite relevant. By the way, I heard that theaters would open up July 1 here. I don’t know if I should believe it or not. There are no health/safety regulations in place.

Alexandru Berceanu 4 Jun 2020 16:12
it was great! The robot project was planned before. It was interesting that I was thinking about it since winter and then a really great scenographer came to me and said look, you want that we work on this robot performance project? It fitted great. The other one is just an adaptation of a recidency project.
No discussions about theatres opening, some theatres try to open in open air (National Theatre has a nice open air scene, there are some gardens, also a theatre where you can open the roof). Nothing official.
One of the students made this project: ennui: the collective journal

Fatih Gençkal 8 Jun 2020 11:53
There has been quite a few similar projects here concerning chronicling the period we are going through, in the form of journal and other writing, video, sound etc. Many podcasts, interviews specifically about how we are doing, what we are doing etc. An almost global urge to share personal experiences. My correspondence with you is somehow such an attempt. While I see the therapeutic value of this, the amount of content is overwhelming and I don’t know what to do with all this information or who this is for. Still, I’m really curious as to what will happen to all this content in the future: how will it be seen, used etc. What do you think?

Alexandru Berceanu 29 Jun 2020 17:34
Sorry for the delay. Some crazy days. Lots of exams (i am also a student)
I think with those archives will be  the same, some will survive and will be relevent and most will be forgotten until next epidemic. It so interesting how all old photos from Spanish fever flooded the internet and also about magic treatments. By the way during this weekend, i worked like in normal times and i had been for the fist time out of home for 12 hours. I realised i did not get out of the house for more than two hours for three month and a half…

Fatih Gençkal 9 Jul 2020 15:30
My response also arrives late as I’ve been distracted with work, heat and some other projects. I had a lot of funding applications lately. Yes, I feel the same way about the archives created during this time. This period, to me, has resembled the Gezi protest time in İstanbul during the summer of 2013 where everybody was archiving everything and feeling that this was a historic moment where everything will have a value later on. I since then have a particular detachment from all the content and memories of that period -although it was indeed great and I don’t regret any part of it. Maybe these things will have more value -outside of nostalgia- when they are forgotten and are unearthed at another moment of need, just as the Spanish flu. Then different aspects of them can also be revealed.
So you are back to work now?

Alexandru Berceanu 26 Jul 2020 11:48
Yes, I had some very weeks, we started production of one of the projects. Everybody was so enthusiastic. Some of the actors were clearly having vertigo from seeing so many people. It was very powerful to see people so happy to do what they like, to express themselves, and to be happy to be with others. I was busy all the time, but now it’s out. It was strange when I realized it was my first time out of the house for 12 hours! Working at a theatre play is strange now. We do not know if we will be able to have audience at the opening, maybe we will be able just to have a live transmission. In Romania we are actually at the worst moment since the start of the epidemics, now we report more than one thousand cases per day so the future looks pretty sad, it looks that we will need to just get treatment or vaccine because nobody wants to make an effort in wearing the mask or trying to keep the others safe.

Fatih Gençkal 27 Jul 2020 14:02
Producing something not knowing if it will have a live -or in-house?- audience! I wonder how the terminology needs to change now about being live! I don’t really have an urge to perform or make something these days. I feel like I do not have a grasp on the codes of presence right now. And the need. I don’t know if the project ideas I had before the pandemic are still valid and meaningful in this context. If I was rehearsing, I don’t know how I would motivate myself not knowing how the work will end up. Maybe that’s a motivation in and of itself.  I feel you are describing two opposite pictures: on one hand you have a preparation for a show (which somehow indicates a rather low moment of the pandemic) and on the other you have a peak moment of the pandemic. I was under the impression that your lives were almost back to normal in Romania. Is there a possibility to go back to confinement again then?

Continued on Messenger

Fatih Gençkal 20 Aug 2020 10:59
Hello dear. Do u want to conclude our conversation in email?

Alexandru Berceanu 1 Sept 2020 15:42
Hello. Fatih.
Sorry for the delay.
I will answer you last mail today
I think it would be interesting to conclude it in mid septembre.
In Romania theatres are supposed to be opened starting today. On the 9th we have the opening of the performance we talked about.
Admisions at university start today and end on the 15th…

Fatih Gençkal 1 Sept 2020 16:05
Wonderful. Write me and i will write back and then you can send the final email in mid September.
Break a leg 👊🏼

15 Sept 2020 13.31
hey dear how was the performance?
If we can finish our conversation, i can publish it on sunday!

Alexandru Berceanu 15 Sept 2020 13.32
I will answer this evening.

Continued on Email

Alexandru Berceanu 17 Eyl 2020 09:30
Now the world seems almost normal. Theatres were allowed to perform starting with 15 of September, admissions at university was face to face, we had a great interest for our programs form very talented young people, my daughter Ivona is delighted to meet her new colleagues after her exam at high school and we have opened the university exhibition in Kepler’s’ Garden for Arts Electronica and the performance Who am I? for the same festival in H3 Garden. Same feelings of exhaustion, same emotions after a huge amount of work. The play is about Marcel Schwob’s story The Golden Masked King and it tells the story of a man in search of purity behind masks. It was a very emotional journey starting in May with actors who haven’t seen people in person from two months and later on with spectators who have not seen a live performance in six months. The performance looks for intimate contact between performer and the spectator, a 2 tons industrial robot and Andreea Gavriliu, an amazing choreographer. Somehow at the opening I realized that almost everything in the performance is COVID related: the set, costumes, movement. In the center of the performance is the image of a dying human and a dying robot. I got to realize more sharply how machines can sustain life, make people breathe and sometimes are the last presence for a dying human. I really felt the need to think on the long term, and felt the need of a type of regeneration.

Conversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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