on DEBT! by Brittany Patch

Festival dramaturg Brittany Patch reflects on Saviana Stanescu’s DEBT! lecture and interviews Paul Bargetto about this innovative series, which brings together Eastern European artists and American scholars to create performative lectures about debt. The final lecture, by Hobo Arts Warsaw and NYU Professor Michael Ralph, premieres Thursday and Friday, July 19th and 20th, at 7:30pm in the Los Kabayitos Theatre at Clemente Soto Velez. The poster exhibition is on view at the Living Theatre through July 29th.


A powerpoint screen illuminates a small, dark room with oversized moneybags on the floor. Despite the smallness of the space, the ideas examined within its confines are delightfully large and expansive. Saviana Stanescu’s Revolution is the second in a series of collaborative, performative lectures geared toward discussing debt. Framed by a captivating personal narrative, Stanescu’s musings on the subject explore the ways in which we are indebted to our country, to our loved ones, and to ourselves.

Her story begins in communist Romania, a country where dreams of the Western world’s freely flowing creative and economic power pour into the hearts and minds of many caught in the clutches of socialism. Personal photographs accompany her account of how the country’s economy influenced her cultural and artistic upbringing. As Stanescu delves into the myth of self-satisfying capitalism, she reminds us that the grass is not always greener. The audience feels her excitement and frustration as a foreign-born New Yorker who arrived shortly before the tragedy of 9/11, which vastly changed the business practices and overall social framework of the city. Woven in between Stanescu’s personal memories are the stories of other ex-patriots who begin to embrace or shed allegiances to their national heritage in response to the consumerism bred by American patriotism. Stanescu has an enormous skill for storytelling and Revolution consists of inspiring recollections of hope and perseverance.

UGZ festival Artistic Director Paul Bargetto spoke with me about the origins of the DEBT! series and how artists like Stanescu can influence the conversation around the subject:

What about the topic of debt is so pertinent and how did you come to this topic for exploration?  I believe that debt is the central issue and problem of our times.  From the mortgage crisis, and student loan debt problem in the United States to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, it has become an inescapable fact of our lives.  And yet, I realized that I knew very little about the mechanics of debt, or the history and roots of the institution.  So I decided to put this project in motion to investigate it, and come to some understanding of how we arrived here, and perhaps to get at the meaning of debt itself.

I also have a personal interest in debt, as I went to Columbia University…

Was there a collaboration process for this event?
The process began in Warsaw with a conversation with the director Bartek Frackowiak about the idea of the “performative lecture.”  This is still a relatively new idea in the USA, but is more common in Europe.  After this discussion, I realized the “performative lecture” was an excellent form to approach the subject of debt.  I then recruited one of my longtime collaborators, Amiel Melnick, to work with me on the project.  She is currently working on her Ph.D. in Anthropology in New York and through a number of conversations we hammered out the basic outline of the project.  I would recruit artists from Eastern Europe and she would find scholars from New York to make the investigatory teams.

What performative qualities inform each lecture and how do you expect the performance lectures will vary from one another?
They vary widely, from autobiographical confessional monologue, to staged reading, to dance (so far!).  Each team ultimately had two challenging problems: to make a coherent statement about the vast subject of debt, and to decide on the rules, meaning and structure of performative lecture.  I let them sort that out for themselves, as I felt that their exploration of form was a critical part of the curatorial frame I was constructing.  It was important that both the artist and the scholar/expert enter the project from a position of the unknown.  The artist knows nothing about debt, the expert nothing about performance, and neither knows what a “performance lecture” is.  This puts the whole team in a state of imbalance – a perfect place to begin an investigation.

What inspires you about work and artists from abroad?
It’s that same state of imbalance I mentioned before.  When you meet and work with people from abroad you always find new perspectives and ideas that you could not have expected or imagined.  They knock you off your centerline, and make you rethink your assumptions – and that’s extremely valuable for an artist.

Do you hope a New York audience will extract a particular meaning from the personal narratives of artists such as Saviana Stanescu? Especially in regards to the subject of debt?
One of the most interesting developments of the DEBT! series was the reminder of the socialist system that encompassed all the nations represented by the artists we brought this year (Romania, Bulgaria and Poland) and the profound implications of its collapse in 1989. It’s difficult to imagine today that there once existed an alternative economic system to the one we have now in a large part of the world.  The free market consumerist model that now dominates the planet does so with no alternative to push against.  I think having artists like Saviana talk about her experiences growing up under communism is an important reminder about the profound implications of the collapse of that system on our current malaise and ongoing economic crisis.

How do you see the poster exhibition enhancing the experience of the performance lectures?  The poster exhibit is a wonderful visual complement to the performance lectures.  It is fantastic to see these wry, satirical, funny and sometimes brutal takes on the concept of debt, after walking to the theater past dozens of billboards advertising credit cards. Polish poster art and illustration has a rich tradition of political and social satire and this exhibit lives up to that legacy admirably.