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Unguarded views

Xandra Popescu and Adrian Knuppertz’s “You are safe with me” (curated and produced by Larisa Crunțeanu) uses film and photography to explore issues of performativity and (male) authority in Bucharest’s public spaces. The project is an experimental take on the conventional contemplative portrait, offering an unusual window into the private thoughts that keep security guards occupied during their often tedious posts, as well as their public persona. Through the iconic image of the security guard, the artists spark a conversation about the gentrification processes in the capital, as well as processes of inclusion and exclusion in regard to class and ethnicity. 

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“You Are Safe Safe With Me”  photograph by Adrian Knuppertz, 2015

The series of photographs and short film reveal their fascination with the uniform that embodies a generic authority that is currently so embedded in everyday life in Romania. It would be easy to ascribe this authority as an expression of the increased militarization of society in the East (as well as in the West), in which the state of exception or being on constant alert has become normality. However, the final project does not linger solely around the fetishization of signifiers of authority, rather it digs deeper into the subjectivity of the main characters, artists and security guards, and their respective roles in society. More generally, “You are safe with me” reveals the effects of the economic privatization that has so gripped the country in the past decade through narratives that are personal, candid and typical, revealing the societal markup of Bucharest. 

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 “You Are Safe Safe With Me”  photograph by Alexandru Dan, 2015 

In the description of the project the Popescu states that she imagined the photographs to be part of a pin-up calendar having security-guards as protagonists, as a pretext to understanding the social phenomenon they embody.[1] One of the results of this investigation, the color photographs are consciously artificial, placing the male security guards and the artists against a green background that is usually edited out in commercial films. The guards directly engage viewers with piercing gazes, but this stereotypically macho persona is at the same undone by funny gestures and unscripted grimaces with the artists. The corporeality of the guards stands in a playful tension with the artists’ unassuming countenance, who we learn are giving them instructions and suggestions on how to pose for the camera. The guards are portrayed wearing the same uniform, with the initials BGS (BARTGUARD Services, established in 1994), the initials of the security firm that is one of the largest in Bucharest. In their daily routine, these men perform a certain anonymity that is required of security personnel. Tasked with protecting businesses and goods they must remain inconspicuous, hidden from view, while at the same time ensuring that “nothing too exciting is going on,” as one of them confessed to Popescu.[2] Usually the men in the photographs are on display, but they are also invisible. They stand silent, while people walk past them, and unlike the photographs they are cloaked as generic authority figures. The artists have challenged this dynamic precisely by placing these normally unnoticed figures at the center of the viewer’s attention, revealing the hidden power relations and social codes that configure everyday experiences of the private/public spaces in Bucharest. 

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“You Are Safe Safe With Me” photograph by Adrian Knuppertz, 2015

While in some of the photographs series the guards become almost like sculptures with props, which one is meant to observe and analyze but are unable of observing the viewer, the film adds another dimension to this tension. In the film the artists challenge how one relates to the actual people in this job, asking why one might be socially pre-disposed not to see them as people at all. During the film the guards and the artists engage in casual conversation about the former’s daily lives, the nature of their jobs, their aspirations for the future, their taste in music. The poses they arrive at after negotiations and debates debunk the conventional representations of masculinity that they reference: these men are neither saints, nor warriors, and they have a voice of their own. More, they acutely aware of the security guard’s image-culture, which is impossible to ignore even temporarily; in the film they actively shape their self-representation and are not innocents in their transactions with the artists who are photographing and filming them. 

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“You Are Safe Safe With Me” photograph by Adrian Knuppertz, 2015 

As Popescu explained, their interest lied both in analyzing the public persona of the security guards, as well as capturing the “choreography of hesitation and vulnerability”[3] that came together with arriving at the character poses each of the men wanted to represent them. The decision to focus on this process, rather than just presenting the fixed representations of the guards in character reveals them socially and psychologically. It avoids transforming them into a form of visually riveting spectacle for the viewer’s consumption. The film which captures this process of negotiation between artists and subjects twists the viewer’s familiarity with the concept of the mute and authoritative guard into something dynamic and uncanny, forcing one to more closely pay attention. 

 

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“You Are Safe Safe With Me”  photograph by Adrian Knuppertz, 2015

“You are safe with me” is part of  “Public Speaking,” a program initiated and developed by Larisa Crunțeanu and Xandra Popescu, and co-curated by Dana Andrei. The artists wrote that through this program they are “looking at the accumulated tensions between the ideas of art for art’s sake and its potential to produce social change. The proposed projects work with different artistic strategies ranging from: explicitly engaged and activist (Revolutionary Instrumentary, Art History Retraced Through the Black Square), self-referential and meta-language (Artist Development), subversive (You are safe with me) or poetic (Femina Subtetrix).” [4]


End notes

[1] Xandra Popescu and Adrian Knuppertz, "You are safe with me," in Larisa Crunțeanu and Xandra Popescu, "Public Speaking," Atelier 35, pg. 12

[2] Xandra Popescu and Adrian Knuppertz, "You are safe with me," in Larisa Crunțeanu and Xandra Popescu, "Public Speaking," Atelier 35, pg. 12

[3] Xandra Popescu and Adrian Knuppertz, "You are safe with me," in Larisa Crunțeanu and Xandra Popescu, "Public Speaking," Atelier 35, pg. 12

[4] Larisa Crunțeanu and Xandra Popescu, "Public Speaking," Atelier 35, pg. 2

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: http://rci-rutgers.academia.edu/CorinaApostol Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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