INTERSPACE

Krassi Terziev interviewed by Joanne Richardson


>> You founded InterSpace in Bulgaria in 1998. What is the significance of the name "interspace"?

We founded the center, or founded the idea about it during a time period when there was a very vague notion of media art in Bulgaria. So at that time "interSpace" meant for us a space that existed somewhere in-between different axes, a crossover of oppositions like art><technology; theory><practice; streets><media. We realized that if we wanted to pursue our personal interests in developing our art practices in "Media," we had to go beyond ourselves and develop connections between theorists, scientists, artists, do it yourself media makers, etc... Our own art practices could not become a reality unless there was already a media art scene, and the scene first needed a space where a new kind of media art practice could grow up in a friendly, collective environment and could appear to a public in the right context.

 

>> What is the context in which you were working? As far as I know, there was no media lab, nor even a media space at the time in Bulgaria. Did a tradition of artists founding their own space and association already exist? What motivated you to begin this project?

There were a few independent groups and associations already existing in the contemporary art scene in Sofia, such as the group around the XXL Gallery and the group around The Institute of Contemporary Art, but their scopes were promoting a more traditional form of art and were quite far from media practice. ICA still exists now as a group of important curators, focused more on the representation of Bulgarian art abroad in a very high level Art system (like Venice biennale or Manifesta). XXL was and still is somewhat outside this high-level international scene, offering a local gallery space for a circle of artists and curators with a more radical, political attitude.

But when there was a question of producing or presenting media, there was a suspicion or misunderstanding on all sides. There were no conditions whatsoever for working with media when we started. No legitimation of such a form of production as art, no infrastructure, and no bodies focused on production, presentation, and distribution. And we were young and adventurous enough to decide we could create such an infrastructure, or at least to partly promote a situation that would enable it to develop. I donít know if I am the right person to give an evaluation of the local scene, but these comments are meant to show that we started from ground zero. And we saw that if we wanted to change things for ourselves as individual artists, the whole scene would have to be transformed.

>> Could you elaborate on what you mean by creating a scene for "media art." I often find this term problematic, since all art uses a medium, so at best it means "new media" art. And it is hard to generalize what old and new media means, because it varies by context. In Although video and video installations were an established form in the West in the 1970s, in Romania people often consider video new media because there wasn't any real access to it before the 1990s. What constitutes new media in Bulgaria? And what is the reception of the limits and possibilities of the internet? Much of the discussions in the West about the internet as a "new medium" are coming from a leftist perspective that focus on the creation of different forms of production and distribution that are not part of capitalist models. Does this kind of net.leftism exist in Bulgaria, or do you find it to be primarily a Western phenomenon?

Well I agree that "media art" is a very problematic and controversial term, but for lack of a better one, we have to use it. At the same time I hate this differentiation between old and new media (the video vs. internet discourse) and all this artificial hype about new media, digital revolution, etc. I believe these movements since the invention of the TV are all about the same utopian beliefs and hopes. In a region like Bulgaria, with only some 10 years of contemporary art history, it is impossible to import a Western type discourse and phenomena. So being based in Sofia we are talking of old and new media simultaneously. We are talking about how social and economic spheres are being transformed by new technologies and the internet, but at the same time about how a whole new infrastructure has to be build on top of the ruins of the communistic past, and what weird phenomena and mutations appear in these rapid changes. In a country with a prime-minister who is a former king, and a president who is the leader of the socialist party, it is very hard to determine clear left Ė right oppositions and to follow a clear political discourse.

>> Could you say something more about who is InterSpace - the people and the backgrounds and the way you are organized?

At the moment, InterSpace is a core of 10 persons, but there are also other people who work with us on specific projects - so there is a wider network of supportive people and organisations. We are a colorful composition of artists, curators, software developers, multimedia designers, do-it-yourself media makers, etc.... It is hard to define precise positions in the organization, because most of us are doing 2, 3 or more kinds of activities at the same time, depending on what needs to get done. The group has changed several times during the years. There was a period for example, when there was a dominance of people coming from the club scene, so we did mostly club events during that time. Now we have a clearer configuration of different positions within the group. There are two coordinators who are responsible for the projects we make, or for the funding strategies to implement them; we have data artists who are responsible for server administration and software applications development, etc. Working on different projects during these years has taught us that we have to have key specialists on the different activities we develop because it is easier to work this way, but we would still like to keep as long as it is possible a horizontal structure in our organization and avoid hierarchies of functions within the group.

>> What are some of the projects you've made?

We focused our strategy of activities along several key streams, which in our vision had to develop all the missing aspects of media awareness in the art scene, and in the wider society. We organize events in the area of "Art & Technologies" in order to familiarize the audience with ideas and concerns around new media. Some of our recent events were NET_USER, an International Internet Conference, at USICC, Sofia, BG (2001), MAKROVIDEO, a series of video installations in public space, at the National Palace of Culture, Sofia, BG (2001), and URBAN CYCLES, an Interactive video installation in Public Space, National Palace of Culture, Sofia, BG (2000) - this was a collaborative project between InterSpace in Sofia & IDEA in Manchester, England. For these different events, we have organized production and presentation of projects by other artists not belonging to the interSpace group.

The interSpace media lab has been used for our own projects, but there is open access, and the lab has been used for the production of a series of media art projects by other artists.

We also maintain a Server for Art and Culture in Bulgaria - www.cult.bg - which is a long term project, attempting to capture the different aspects of the local scene and to give them a public interface on the web. The server gives systematic information about events happening in Bulgaria as well as opportunities abroad, and offers a forum for open discussions about the processes in Art and Society and about social phenomena arising in our post-everything society. This forum includes all the communication tools in the portal site - submitting content online, submitting comments on reviews online, the mailing list, etc.

>> How do you sustain these projects? Do you have sources of income from grant institutions, or have you had to become (semi) commercial?

During the past 3 years, we went through different stages and we relied on different models of sustainability. In the beginning, when nobody knew about who we were and what we were doing, we had to be very inventive, combinative and flexible in order to survive. So we had to do partly commercial productions, because the grants we were able to get were only for specific projects and events and did not include the structural and infrastructural expenditures of just running InterSpace on a daily basis. Although it is common to disparage commercial production, we can say in retrospect that it was a useful experience to depend on commercial projects, because as artists we learned to operate with deadlines, and were able to get a clearer sense of whom we could trust to be dependable, etc. and we were able to form a team with very innovative and energetic people.

Recently we have been able to decrease this kind of semi-commercial production, and can rely more on grants for long-term projects. This has been important because we want to concentrate more on our own projects and gather all the pieces of the puzzle of our past activities together so we can think about a strategy for development in the future.

>> Do you see a greater level of independence now that you are relying on grant money rather than commercial projects? Or is this trading one form of dependence for another? Many initiatives label themselves "independent" (and I always wonder what this means - independent from state institutions, from academic institutions, from commercial interests) but are getting a lot of money from grant institutions which often have their own agendas, like ECF who wants to promote "European" values to the East. How do you think sources of funds relate to (or affect) the goals of independent projects?

  You have to be living for some time in this part of Europe to understand our perception of independence, which is neither an American or European understanding, and I think the notion in itself is not abstract but depends on certain circumstances. Everything here is a negotiation and there are enough difficulties in the simple fact of running such an organization, without lobbying on any level of the power structures. We donít have the privilege to believe in the anarchistic ideas I see behind your question.

>> I do not consider myself an anarchist, nor do I see the presuppositions behind my questions in this light. This is not to say that I donít have some sympathy for the anarchists as a group (rather than as an ideology), though I share some of the reservations about anarchism that the Marxists had - anarchist ideas of freedom and autonomy seem to be one-sided or non-dialectical and do not recognize the extent to which they are implicated in the structures they criticize. In this sense, there is no complete autonomy - "independent " institutions are dependent in financial and other ways on the state and other "repressive" structures. It is this notion that was was behind my question. Practially, as an individual, I recognize that to fight for a certain level of freedom (freedom from work done for someone else) I am dependent on grants, some of which have come from the repressive body of the US government. I don't think any of us have the luxury of pretending to be innocent about money. Someone else's money makes your "independence" possible. It is always a question of choices and negotiations Ö But maybe this is too abstract, and we can come back to the specific context in Bulgaria. Can you tell me what has been the local response to InterSpace in Sofia? Is InterSpace an initiative that is better known locally or internationally?

Because the situation in Bulgaria was one of isolation, and because we have been focusing on establishing and maintaining a production lab with only our efforts, with no state or any other support, we stayed for a very long time a local phenomenon. On the other hand it gave us a very good reputation here and we enjoy a very active audiences and supporters in Sofia. Just in the past year or so we have gained a more international recognition. And for me starting locally and then spreading out is a quite logical process of preparing the situation and going step by step in order to have a longer-term effect and impact.

 

>> In many East European countries it is still the (former) Soros Center for Contemporary Arts which seem to have the largest budgets (even if gradually losing direct support from Soros and declaring themselves independent by applying for other sources of funding). Their size and historical reputation often cut competition by smaller fish. What is the relationship between the (former) SCCA in Bulgaria and other smaller initiatives?

>> I have a question for you, Joanne: do you see any new infrastructure capable of replacing the Soros Centers, which are starting to fade out all over Eastern Europe? Despite all the wrong steps and bad investments made by them in the past, I donít understand all the complaints about the Soros Network - which seem to either be made by people who do not know the situation or who are driven by hypocritical ambitions.

<< I think someone from America, or Spain or Australia would have little reason to complain about the Soros network, simply because they donít know the situation, and it doesn't appear on their horizon. Most of the complaints I have heard about the Soros Centers came from people who were immersed in the situation. And I am speaking from my knowledge of Soros Centers in the 3 countries that I know better than others (and which I won't mention by name), so what I say can be considered a generalization, which, as such, is partially false.  I can give you several scenarios as examples. The first is of SCCA administrators who enjoy the privilege of traveling to all the important exhibits and festivals (and staying in nice hotels), and whose help to artists has been minimal - that is, aside from the over-production of catalogues which is perhaps one thing that artists in the area can boast as a direct benefit of the Soros money. I can also mention cases where it is a very closed circle of artists who are promoted by SCCAs, which sometimes inlcludes friends, lovers and ex-husbands. But to be fair, this kind of nepotism is present in new organizations as well, like some Pro Helvetia chapters where it is possible for half the funds for a given year to go to a project of the spouse of the director. There are other cases of ugly quarrels and abuses - for instance, of an artist who is involved in a legal case because the SCCA published a text of hers in a catalogue after she expressly denied permission for it to be included. And it is too simple to interpret these as individual "complaints" about instances of misuse of power - together they form a critique of the organization and purpose of the structure of SCCAs, which to a large extent seem to have been founded to promote artists as a means of promoting themselves as an organization. And which have often ended up monopolizing the cultural funds available in a given country for their own projects, thereby excluding smaller initiatives - with different ideas and visions - that would try to compete with them.

This is not to say that the former SCCAs have not achieved some important results, and in my own opinion they were most successful when they were not in the business of promoting individual artists abroad or international artists locally, but when trying to create the conditions for a wider cultural awareness of issues that go beyond art - like the influence of new technologies. I can mention the exhibitions and events organized by Calin Dan at the beginning of the nineties, when he was the director of the SCCA in Bucharest, which I think were important for opening the discussion about the role of media and new technologies not just in art but in a wider cultural framework. And when the SCCA in Budapest became a separate institution with a different concern and agenda, C3 - Center for Communication and Culture, they were not just instrumental in trying to develop an awareness of Information Technologies among artists as they were in getting hospitals and educational institutions wired for the first time.

So it is not so much a question of replacing the Soros Centers with a similar infrastructure - in other words, another body of administrators and art critics who can take on the role of intermediaries and promote artists locally or internationally. What is more interesting to me in the emergence of small media centers (smc's) in this area is that they are transcending these narrow definitions of art and trying to operate on a different level and with another public. And the idea of forming a network between these smc's (which we discussed a few months ago at the Art Servers Unlimited 2 meeting in Croatia) acknowledges the importance of providing a means for communication and exchange of information and resources between them, while rejecting external intermediaries (like SCCAs).

December, 2001


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