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Isabela Voicu

In conversation with Barbara Pflanzner, Studio at Creative Cluster, May 24, 2023

You have completed studies in both fine arts and stage design at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. How do these two studies relate to each other in your work?

When it comes to my working process, there is no clear boundary for me. Both are artistic processes that result in some kind of outcome. Studying scenography at the Academy has guided me to see the stage not only as a stage in the theater, a black box, but as something that can be anything. I find that very liberating; it also allows me to incorporate other disciplines. I ask myself: If everything can be a stage, at what point is a stage element an installation? Or also, When does a costume become a sculpture?

Are there aspects in your work that you would describe as your artistic signature?

I don’t think so. I have a project-based approach and enjoy immersing myself in each respective theme. Actually, I find it rather exciting that through my projects I can constantly try something different. I don’t exclude the possibility that there might be something that will engage me for a longer period of time and become my signature, but at the moment, I find it very interesting to simply explore. I also really enjoy experimenting with different materials and disciplines. Perhaps there are aspects that recur in the process but not yet in the final product. Maybe that’s my signature: that everything is always changing.

You engage interdisciplinarily with other art forms, such as performance or drawing, often with a site-specific approach. How does that manifest in your work?

My main source of inspiration is going out and meeting people I wouldn’t normally come into contact with. You can also see it as curiosity. There’s something adventurous for me in stepping out of my comfort zone, looking around and discovering places. That’s what I meant by saying that the stage can actually be anything: I enjoy playing with the idea that small scenic pieces can be created at everyday locations in nature or public spaces, like when you’re sitting on a bench waiting for the bus, if you just observe well enough. All it takes is patience and attention.

For a project at the Academy, we worked with the “As Found” method: we took walks through the city to find places, which we then dealt with for a longer period of time. In the Brigittenau district, I came across a former boiler factory that appeared abandoned from the outside. I went inside and looked around, whereupon a man came out, with whom I started a conversation. I learned that he was the grandson of the factory owner who originally built the factory. He gave me a tour of the house, and it was evident that the place had remained untouched since his grandfather passed away. The termination papers of the last employees were still lying on the table – it was like a time capsule. This encounter inspired me a lot. Initially, I wanted to build a model of the building, but the essence of this house – the dust on the papers and everything that was still inside – couldn’t be translated into that medium. So, I decided to make a video work instead. I interviewed the owner and spoke with the employees, and often I was there alone, which was sometimes eerie and uncomfortable. The owner also had a bunker in his garden because his grandfather had to build one during the war for producing tank floors. For me, this is a site-specific work, an examination of this found place. Site-specific, to me, also means taking a place as it is and developing or creating something on-site that wouldn’t work elsewhere.

Observing the environment was also the subject of your thesis at the Academy, right?

My thesis arose from the desire to develop a project during a cargo ship voyage. The trip wasn’t able to take place due to the pandemic, so I decided that the prospect courtyard of the studio building would be the perfect alternative location because this space feels like an upside-down ship to me. I made a minimal intervention in the space by placing loungers, thus directing the view towards the ceiling. While lying there, one could listen to stories about the sea and life by the sea – a text collage that I put together. The realigned perspective and the act of listening alone gave the space a different meaning and the audience a different sense of it.

You are also part of the artistic quintet Academy of Fine Brass. What is your concept?

We are five scenographers who met at the Academy during our studies in stage design. The members are Cosima Baum, who was a scholarship holder of the Studio program last year; Flora Besenbäck, who is currently a participant; Joanne Klopp; Astrid Rausch; and me. None of us have any musical training, but we all had a desire to make music. We realized that we all had a fear of failure when it came to playing music, so we decided to focus on this theme. We set ourselves the goal of learning three opera overtures within three months in order to perform a virtuoso New Year’s concert. This means that beginners played the beginnings of pieces at the beginning of the year, which made perfect sense to us. For this, we chose the most virtuosic instruments of all, namely brass instruments. And so, the Academy of Fine Brass was born. However, it’s more of an art project than a band. When we perform, costumes and processes are just as important to us as considerations of where we perform and how a performance is structured.

Right now, we’re sitting at your workplace. There are a few dolls on the table that you have been working on for a while. What’s the story behind them?

The dolls have opened up a new working process for me, one that I hadn’t experienced before. They were created as part of a workshop with costume designer Greta Goiris, whom I have collaborated with in the past. We tried to build a doll with the idea of finding movement for it: How do I hold my hand, how do I move, how does the doll move? In the second step, which was actually the more exciting for me, we translated these dolls into costumes that could have been worn by a person. This shift enabled movements or positions that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. I found this process very interesting. The costumes that were created also extend into space, with features like long arms, a detachable head, or other objects that can connect the body and the space.

What are you currently working on and what are your plans?

In the next few months that I’m still here in the studio, I intend to continue experimenting. I’ve built up a nice collection of materials and found objects for the dolls that will be created in the coming months – two boxes full of fabric scraps I found and those I was allowed to take from various productions I worked on. The plan is to work with figures from different traditions and explore the border between invented and actual tradition. I would like to delve into Romanian traditions and rituals, which are manifested in clothing as well as traditional creatures. Often there are parallels between different cultures. When I studied at the art university in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, I was amazed and thrilled to see that there were indeed similarities in narratives that also exist in Romania, thousands of kilometers away. In Réunion, I also created a book of collages, which serves as both research and a collection of different elements that fascinated me there: places that would make good stages, such as the beach, or photos of people I encountered and interacted with at the market or the bus stop. It also includes a few collages as drafts for the mythological doll characters. I really enjoy working on such sketchbooks; they’re like a small treasury of ideas and thoughts that I can refer back to later.