HOW TO TURN YOUR LIABILITY INTO AN ASSET:
MEDIA, ART AND POLITICS IN POST-COMMUNIST BULGARIA
Luchezar Boyadjiev interviewed by Geert Lovink
The first interview was conducted during the opening of Hybrid Workspace in June 1997, the temporary media lab in the margins of the big art show Documenta X in Kassel (Germany).
> Could you explain us the current situation in Bulgaria from your point of view? For a long time, the Bulgarian communists have stayed in power, after having changed their faces. Recently, a lot has happened in South-East Europe... student demonstrations in Serbia, the first non-communist government in Romania, anarchy in Albania... What is the reason of the apparently unique position of Bulgaria?
The more time passes after 1989, the more differences there are between each country in Eastern Europe. In the past, Bulgaria had a privileged position, in terms of being one of the closest allies of the Soviet Union. The country enjoyed an almost free supply of raw materials, crude oil, electricity. A utopian situation, having no worry about how to produce and make a living for its citizens. Now, it looks as if time has stopped after 1989. We realized this only recently. On the surface, a democratic reform took place. A free-market economy was introduced, of which I am not a fan, but which seemed to be the only way out of the deadlock. As it turned out, there is no capitalism, so consequently, there is no opposition to capitalism. This applies also to the social situation. A redistribution of the old money of the regime is now taking place among its loyal followers who are now top bankers or mafia leaders. This is not capitalism, it is Monte-Carlo money. Easy come, easy go, no re-investments.
In the 1994-1996 period there was a full-fledged socialist government in power which had no agenda whatsoever. It supported the infrastructure of organized crime. In the late Spring of 1996 there was a severe banking crisis. This government was sticking to the state owned property, lending money to non-productive sectors in order to hold down social unrest. The result was hyper-inflation, each day new exchange rates were issued, five or ten times higher than the day before, a situation other countries had been through five or six years ago. This situation resulted in a lot of street unrest in January and February 1997 which started with people breaking into the parliament building.
> It has been said that the protests in Sofia were inspired by those in Belgrade. Through the television images one got the impression of a large, diverse and creative movement.
The situation in Belgrade was totally different because in Serbia there were legitimate elections and the results were simply not recognized by the governing power. In Bulgaria there were no elections. People went out on the streets simply because they could not take it any longer. Given the quality of life, if I can permit myself this expression, you can either fuck or eat. You cannot at the same time buy condoms and meat. In those weeks there was a great feeling of unity on the streets. It turned out that there was a new generation of students. Unlike the 1989 generation, the new students are not leaving the country. They want to stay, work and have a decent life. They are fully aware that no matter who comes to power, they will be corrupt. Like in Jenny Holzer's slogan: 'Abuse of power comes as no surprise.' These students will go on strike again.
As of July 1st 1997 Bulgaria will have lost its independence. It will be put under the control of the International Monetary Fund. We are going to have a currency board and the Bulgarian leva will be tied to the German mark. It is going to be hard. But ironically, it is a way of having a tangible feeling that somehow there is a relation to the world. All East-European countries want to become part of NATO or the European Community, or even better: both. No one is inviting Bulgaria, yet we are already discussing the possibility to join in. There is this utopian feeling that all things will change overnight and everything will be allright. So there are illogical emotions towards Western Europe and towards the rudimentary remains from the distant past, like the former monarch, who showed up in Sofia a year ago, with huge masses on the street, simply crying on the streets. But he never returned--clever guy.
> How did the artists you know respond to the current economic and political crisis?
They responded in a very direct way. For about two months, we had a special meeting at 4 p.m. each day, in front of the parliament. Artists would meet and and demonstrate. We used cans full of coins to produce a lot of noise. The big change compared to 1989 is that people, artists included, can change things. After these seven years of having simulated reforms, without actual change, people all of a sudden became dissidents. They lost all their feelings of nostalgia for the security of the past. Unfortunately that also applies to the word socialism, which is compromised in many ways. A new party was founded in the winter and is already called in the parliament 'the Euroleft'. It brings together former socialists, liberals and intellectuals. It is a significant sign that very soon there will be the possibility to name things with the proper name. Soon it will be possible to work on alternatives and create progressive, radical movements, without being immediately branded a communist.
> What is the current influence of computers and new media on the arts and culture?
It is growing. Recently, three media labs opened in Sofia. In the past it was stagnating. Now this is, again, a substitute for a physical reality. When you have a deficiency of the physical reality, you have some hopes that in the virtual reality you may find some compensations. For example, in Bulgaria there is no museum of contemporary art, for good or bad. One could probably make a virtual museum and appropriate some existing space, make a CD-ROM, a website somewhere. Video is also compensating for the lack of possibilities. It is a symptom of crisis and of a utopian hope.
> Now that the production is almost at ground zero and the country is bankrupt, virtuality seems the only solution. Is this what you are saying? And what is the role of the artist in all this?
Everything that could be sold is being sold and this is the only way to make fresh cash, as they say. Bulgarians have this survival capability, which is very high. The absurdity is taking place on many levels, not only in the media, the economy or the social situation. Concerning art, in the past in Bulgaria there was no dissident movement. The regime found flexible ways of accommodating deviations in the sphere of art. Non-conventional art started in the mid eighties. It was not underground by any definition. You cannot really say that it is backward. In any case, there are not more than 25 to 30 people working in the field of contemporary art. Then comes in the Soros Foundation and its Centers for Contemporary Art. When the Center in Sofia was about to be opened, in early 1994, the Soros Foundation itself had changed. George Soros had given more authority to the local branches. The Sofia Center is an outcome of this bigger power of the local branch. It was established by the local office, not by the international network, Suzy Meszoly and the headquarters in New York. The good thing is that it has more programs, related to theatre, music, literature, not only visual arts. The bad thing is that it was quite provincial. It took them four years to make more relevant exhibitions. Bulgarian art is always first and foremost content-oriented art. It does not really matter what the medium is. The message is one of absurdity. How to turn a liability into an asset. A liability in terms of inferiority, identity or provincial complexes, is turned into a bombastic statement of one sort or another.
> Should the World Bank also take over the branch of contemporary art? You have been stating this in the catalogue Menschenbilder--Photo und Videokunst aus Bulgarien, an exhibition organized by the IFA-gallery in Berlin, held in February-March 1997.
Traditionally, Bulgaria has been in and out of its own history, as well as in and out of European History, as if it was a supermarket. The country has always been performing better when it was not independent, whenever it was part of a larger empire, be that as it may the Byzantine, the Ottoman, or the Soviet Empire, or an ally to Germany in two World Wars and now (that it has tied itself up tothe German mark.) We certainly cannot sustain reciprocal exchange. We do not have any infrastructure to speak of. Outside the Soros Center there is hardly any sponsorship for art. The annual budget of the Soros Center is probably ten times larger than that of the Ministry of Culture. So I developed the idea to have an international curatorial board, to control contemporary art in Bulgaria, like the currency board. Would you like to join?
A little later the following text was published on mailing lists such as Nettime and Syndicate: Culture Board for Bulgaria: A Body for Cultures in Ruin [extract]
Arts and culture are the last to be considered contemporary, sensitive instruments that could express the 'signs of the times'. The financial sector has taken over the role of 'avant-garde'. Let us face it: culture is a prime target of budget cuts and this has become the only language in which officials can speak. Art, by definition, is always in a defensive role and is unable to make demands. So let us quit this culture of complaint... We propose to radically face current global economic forces. We will intervene in their sphere. Culture should no longer be left out, condemned to compensate for and be at the receiving end of this trauma. The proposal is to form, install and implement 'Culture Boards', which are modeled after the Currency Board--the main instrument of the International Monetary Fund to straighten out ruined economies. This supra-national body, unaccountable to the electorate, actually controls the government. In reality, this body IS the government because it defines financial policy and steers legislative initiatives.
Before 1989, culture was managed as a prime state affair (and so was its funding). This logic changed overnight in the nineties and step by step Culture was being run as a business, including sponsorship, self-financing, post-Fordist working circumstances (free-lancers, etc.). This is now the dominant ('neo-liberal') ideology. The Culture Board is both the ultimate expression of this, flipping into a radical critique. We can no longer speak in the melancholic terms of postmodernism. Nor do we need a self-imposed (cyber)optimism, selling a future which is actually fading away. We need concrete facts, reports on the actually existing poverty in museums, artistic circles, closed magazines and missed opportunities, encounters with the migrated Others and their remembered shadows. The motivation and the purpose of the Culture Board is the stable cultural credibility of a country....
Luchezar and I met again, one year later in Manchester, during the follow-up of the Hybrid Workspace project, the temporary media lab called Revolting, curated by Micz Flor.
> Could we speak of a Sofia School of Contemporary Art? The title of the recent exhibition in Munich, Bulgariaavantgarde, suggests this. It seems that this group, this generation presents a coherent picture.
It is a group of people that has been working in a parallel way. People from different generations--artists, curators, art critics and people who are into cultural theory/studies. The activities of this group are centered around the Institute of Contemporary Art, a small NGO that did not have an office for a long time, only a rotating computer Bulgariaavantgarde was held at the Kuenstlerwerkstatt Lothringerstrasse in Munich in May 1998. We did not want to present any distinct, oppressive identity of ours. We wanted to make it clear that we are transparent, open-minded, adaptive to circumstances, ready to enter a dialogue, without having to impose on anybody our complaints and miseries. The most significant, emblematic work was an installation by Pravdoliub Ivanov, consisting of 25 hot-plates on the floor. On each plate there would be a pot of different color and size. But since the hot plates are too small and not strong enough, the water never actually reaches the point of boiling. You see something is cooking but nothing is ever cooked. In Germany this made a lot of sense. The unification has been going on without any concrete results, like a never ending process. There was very little obvious ideology in this show.
> This absence of ideology and identity goes well together with the current stagnation and ongoing crisis in Bulgaria. Little development or progress, trapped in the vacuum of permanent restructuring, budget cuts and political malaise.
Yes, people lack a perspective on having better lives, production picking up etc. State finances seem to be alright. Renovation of streets in the center of Sofia is happening, in part financed by the European Union, in order to beautify the city. But there is always a strange aspect. There are signs that police activity is on the rise. Some say, a police state is immanent. But so far it can be interpreted as an attempt to crack down on organized crime. Most obvious is the disappearance of pirated CDs. This crackdown was the result of a direct threat of sanctions from the American President Bill Clinton to our president. In a matter of two weeks, Bulgarian CDs just disappeared.
This is the age of Multi Group, a financial corporation with offices not only in Bulgaria. The official rumor says that the founding of this group is going back to the money laundering operations with ex-communist party assets at the end of the eighties. There are also other similar companies. Now the government has to deal with these big companies which are controlling big parts of the country on various levels. The previous government of former communists, which is now called the Socialist Party, tried to get back the laundered money of these groups, which are actually Mafia. But they failed. The only thing the new government can do is engage and work with these businessman making it possible for them to re-legitimize their 'capital' by bring it back into the country as investments. Like in Russia, the issue now is how to make a historical compromise in order to get the badly needed tax money, in exchange for legitimization and economical power. So on the whole, we can see a process of adaptation to the so-called European standards. This counts for taxing, the banking system and the newly established border police. Next year we will have a new set of IDs, driver's licenses and passports which are made according to EU-standards. We are all trying to prove to foreign investors and our rich citizens that we are exploitation-worthy Europeans.
> For many, the time of expectations has expired. The standards of living for the majority has been continuously falling down. Will they continue to wait patiently?
Concerning rejuvenation, all hope is lost. The majority is now living under the poverty line and fighting for their daily survival. It gets especially tough for the retired people. On the other hand, there is now an entirely new generation which grew up after 1989. They have taken for granted that the situation is chaotic. The father or mother may not have a job. These young people are very inventive. Unfortunately, the government does not know how to support their initiatives. It can only control state affairs.
> Here, in Manchester, you are participating in the Virtual Revolution workshop. The revolution is all over, and your installation is also referring to it. You are projecting an image of Lenin, speaking at a gathering...
It is a social realist painting from the thirties. I do not even know the name of the artist. The image probably refers to one of the rallies, just after the revolution, between November 1917 and the early spring of 1918. In the dark gallery space I am capturing the faces of the visitors, pasting them into the mass meeting, using the scheme of police surveillance. There is a digital video camera at the entrance. The faces of the visitors are captured in stop motion and then are processed with two computers in Premier and PhotoShop manually. Then they are sent to a third machine which is running a program titled 'Revolution.Exe' which I have designed with a programmer in Sofia. This program is actually replacing the faces of the revolutionary workers with the faces of visitors to the space and you can see the new faces appear on the wall. It shows that you can be manipulated. I can steal your image and do anything I want with it. I do not want to show that you can time travel and participate in some historical event. That idea has already been overexposed. We have had decades of time to dream what it would be like if we had been there. People really identified themselves with the October revolution. Even I, as a young kid, had those nostalgic dreams of wanting to be a revolutionary, getting involved in conspiracies, the underground. These days the organization of a revolution is much more complicated. And there are so many different perceptions on these events. It is easier to speak about terrorism. We can never be sure about the revolution. Who is behind it? Events are not limited to a particular place anymore. It is old news and embarrassing for me to say but still many Western intellectuals have such romantic ideas. They have missed 45 years of the discourse, and the experience.
> How about technological changes? What do you think of phrases such as biotech or digital revolution?
Social revolution is suspect, the digital changes aren't, yet. We are waiting in line to take part in the digital revolution. From our perspective, it is like a flood which has not yet arrived to Bulgaria.
Again, we make a jump in time, to June 2000, when we taped a third, short update. I met Luchezar in Sofia. We were both on the way to the Southern town of Plovdiv, where Communication Front was taking place, a temporary new media lab for artists.
> Bulgaria must have been effected by the nearby Kosov@ crisis. How did you respond to this war next door and what did you do with it in your work?
Bulgarians were mainly influenced on the level of mass psychology. I was not watching television. I got all my immediate information through mailing lists such as Syndicate and Nettime. I was unable to do anything at that moment, I was so depressed. The government here was also passive throughout the crisis. They got into politics instead of doing some real actions, like taking in refugees, thereby taking off the pressure on Macedonia.
In the middle of the crisis I got the invitation to participate in a group show titled The Other Side of Europe at the Jeu de Paume Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris. The curators asked for a spectacular project. After having thought for a while I came up with the proposal which may sound a bit humanitarian. Invite four young artists for one month to work together in the museum and meet the public. They should come from the four countries most effected by the Kosov@ war. I invited Uros Djuric from Belgrade (Serbia), Sokol Beqiri from Pristina (Kosov@), Alban Hajdinaj from Tirana (Albania) and Slavica Janeshlieva from Skopje (Macedonia). I used my experience at Hybrid Workspace, during Documenta, three years earlier. It was supposed to be a relaxed, hybrid space, with moving furniture and equipment to present work. I was invited to participate, as a guest, and turned myself into a host by inviting other artists. The artists I invited started to invite still others, to come to Jeu de Paume, French artists or people who stayed in Paris in that period. Between March 13 and April 9, 2000 we were in the museum every day, presenting video documentaries, video art, until at end, we hosted also presentations of local artists, who otherwise never would have had the opportunity to show their work within the walls of this rather conservative art institution. It was funny. In the eye of these local French artists, we, from the Balkans were the global artists, coming from the international art world.
> Did you want to reconcile the four artists, coming from such different, opposite sites of conflict? Was it your intention to simulate a civil war, have a reasonable dialogue, open negotiations?
I knew all the four artists from before. I invited them on the basis of the quality of their work, on their ability to communicate and their political views. We all try to disregard the politicians. On a human level communication is possible. In the space we had to speak English for the simple reason that the artist from Albania could not speak Serb or any other Slavonic language. On a daily basis all of us had to answer questions from the audience. This gave us the possibility to see all the different point of views, in a combination. The four artists did not know each other from before and had a lot to learn from each other.
> How would you describe the position of arts and culture in 2000, year one after the Kosov@ crisis, where parts of Eastern Europe might get integrated into NATO and EU over time, whereas others will be contained, neglected, forgotten?
On the level of arts and culture, there are many initiatives to network, such as the Balkan Art Generator, there is the Balkan Art Network which bring together artists, curators, collectives, institutions, galleries. The idea is to bypass the political situation, leaving aside the European Union and the question who might or might not be allowed to join Brussels. It is so important to know each other and take common initiatives.
Interview compilation edited by Joanne Richardson for subsol. Longer version in Uncanny Networks: Dialogues with the Virtual Inteligentsia, edited by Geert Lovink, forthcoming MIT Press.
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