Communist Border Signs or
How To Make the Road Your Destination
A journey through Romania is a journey through the political change of a country signposted by road signs.
What changes at the boundary, the border of a country, the point at which one passes from one national space to another? Is the border a point where culture, language, art, territorial rights and migratory routes intersect meet and change? Borders, often contentious are markers that trace on the ground history and a nation’s perception of itself. They are fascinating and significant. Roberta Curcă is a Bucharest based artist who is researching the signs that mark Romania’s borders.
Visual Signs of the Communist Era
I decided to research border signs by chance. I’m a fan of the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the way they catalogued water towers and industrial buildings. Socialist architecture is fascinating and is a much-covered topic. However, no one seemed to have spotted how endlessly fascinating border signs are and how wrapped up they are in the visual signals of the communist era’.
Roberta shares, ‘Somehow I began to fall in love with the idea of capturing a fragile typology, one that dates back to Socialist times. This topic is not without controversy. As an artist, I want to try to separate up the politics so as not to detract from how interesting the typology is, in of itself. That does not mean I am dismissing the political aspect. We need to recognise that these signs are slowly disappearing in precisely the same way the structures photographed by the Bechers disappeared from our landscape.
The more I documented the signs the more it occurred to me that these are very different in character to bus stops or water towers. Think of them as extremely large fixed-to-the-spot greeting cards.
‘A ‘welcome’ message from a place rather than a person, which has underpinning it, ownership of the land where a wooden or metal stake has been forced into the ground’.
Bound up in their identity is a reminder of the individuality of large territorial ‘units’, regardless of labels such as Europe or the EU. This will surely always make them politically appealing. They act as markers on the road, familiar structures indicating that you are home, you have arrived or will arrive soon. They shouldn’t be thought of as threatening, instead, personal or nostalgic.
‘I did not live through or experience Communism’
In fact, I was born in 1991, two years after the revolution. Stories of my childhood were peppered with comparisons. The before and the after. Things which made my parents experience with me very different from what had gone before. Everything from diapers to owning our own car. One of my early memories as a child was our light blue Dacia 1310 which took us on our first road trips. It is, in a way, a bridge between what existed before and after the revolution. The journeys have become more than symbolic for me but without the political trappings. It is wrapped up in my independence and artistic development. Quite simply it enables me to travel throughout Romania and document my findings.
I have no memories of life under Communism, only the memories of my parents, which always seem to be bittersweet. There is always some good amongst the bad or maybe the bad was not that bad.
‘Even controversial architecture has its own beauty and cultural value’
I’ve done a lot of mileage and I’ve seen most of Romania in the process. Taking in main roads connecting large cities and small roads connecting villages. There are always surprises along the way. Regardless of how much I check google maps before a trip somehow a surprise is always thrown up. I’ve got a fairly good understanding of what roadside culture has to offer. There’s no better way to get a sense of Romanian history than by taking to the road.
Today, it’s evident that the country’s self-imposed pressure is to build a faster intercity road network. The desire is for faster mobility and better links between cities. However, this progress comes at a price. What development ignores and downgrades is the importance of seeing a country properly. A simple detour on a scenic route can give a truer sense of identity and culture.
I’m optimistic about the rising interest in cycling culture as this often highlights the beauty of particular roads and villages through competitions and by establishing cycling trails. It is really great sometimes to just enjoy the road because you can always find something worth stopping for.
Today’s border signs can be seen as a bridge between what happened before the 1989 Revoluția Română and what happened after it. They reflect the political transition as well as signposting the conflict about identity evident in modern-day Romania – a country trying to find a way to fully understand its heritage and deal with its memories. Whether historic or recently erected, the border signs are a reflection of 30 years of political change and evolution in Romania. A journey through Romania is a journey through the political change of a country signposted by road signs.
Roberta Curcă (b.1991, Craiova, Romania) is an artist working and living in Bucharest. She is currently working towards her PhD in Cultural Studies at the Centre for Excellency in Image Study. Her research focuses on the signs that mark the borders of Romania, dating back to the era of the Socialist Republic of Romania.
You can find Roberta on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/robertacurca/
Her favourite book is The political lives of dead bodies by Katherine Verdery
Roberta’s favourite films are Jára Cimrman’s 1983 Lezící Spící Lying, Sleeping, a Czechoslovak comedy directed by Ladislav Smoljak
and her favourite photos are the Water Towers series by Bernd and Hilla Becher, 1972
Roberta suggests checking out the National Theatre in Craiova, built by Alexandru Iotzu and opened in 1974.
Favourite local dish to try Mititei (grilled minced spicy meat rolls) and sarmale (cabbage rolls)
All images are the Copyright of Roberta Curca
Find Roberta on Instagram at www.instagram.com/robertacurca