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ART IN EMPTY SHOPS

 In the autumn of 2023, six Bulgarian artists and curator Boyana Dzhikova, by the invitation of the centre for contemporary art CAIRN Centre d’art, carried out a 10-day residency in the mountain town of Digne-les-Bains, Southern France (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region). Its aim was the realization of a project in public environment in 2025 - exhibitions in the closed shops of one of the main streets in the area of the Old Town, which, as a consequence of the emergence of supermarkets in France, went bankrupt and for the past decades have not been able to reestablish their activity. In the following text Aaron Roth, Valko Chobanov, Lazar Lyutakov, Rada Boukova, and Tsvetomira Borisova share their thoughts about the ethics and the approach to this type of artistic interventions, as responded to questions by Boyana.


Един от множеството затворени магазини в центъра на Дин-ле-Бан, 2023. Снимка: Яна Абрашева
One of the many closed shops in the center of Digne-les-Bains, 2023. Photo: Yana Abrasheva

During the 10 days we spent in Digne-les-Bains, almost everyone got sick and went through a few days of fatigue. Afterwards, Charles (Charles Garcin the curator of CAIRN – ed.) told me that this sometimes happens to artists in residence because they “weren’t used to the mountain air.” Aside from being uncomfortable, I found it poetic, as if we had gone through some kind of initiation and after our recovery, our bodies could now handle the place as “their own.” In this sense, within this type of project and residencies that deal with the context of the place, to what extent do you think this ‘empathy’ with the region is important? Is there a need for this to happen or does the perspective of the ‘other’ is sometimes self-sufficient? What has been your strategy in other similar residencies?



Lazar Lyutakov Is it possible to exclude some level of connecting with a place once we’ve already been there? I think of residencies like this as opportunities that come from a particular situation, but it’s not just determined by the place, there are always other personal and professional factors, what we’re interested in at the moment, what we’re feeling like to do, etc. In fact, that’s the case with all exhibitions.


Rada Boukova Going to a residency always starts the same way as going on a vacation. You have to be available. As with a vacation (one that is pre-arranged and paid), the duration is a condition for the success of the experience. In this non-productive time, discomfort, unfinished homework, and feelings of guilt exist if the moment of happening does not occur. A certain receptivity is required. In order to perceive and make sense of a context it is necessary to experience moments that are not in the program, personal experiences that unlock the anticipated sequence of thoughts and ideas. For example, I lost my bank card, had no cash and during the whole week was trying to buy things through my phone and to get my new bank card. That’s how I realized the scale of Digne and the disappearance of services.


Tsvetomira Borisova The activities that Charles’ program provided gradually adapted us to the experience there. But I still find that unavoidable and uncontrollable, and the experience was somehow ours, not exactly at one with the environment. I felt this initiation more domestically and rationally rather than psycho-somatically (if I can put it that way). Now I’ve learned what documents I need to rent a car, I know the roads, I can order the local drink, I got familiar with the local products used for cooking, etc. I didn’t get sick, otherwise I might have felt that initiation you mentioned more strongly (fun fact: only the drivers didn’t get sick!). Otherwise, I find both of the approaches important – the fresh perspective and the one that has lingered somewhere. So I don’t know about which perspective is better, but I still find myself ‘foreign’ to Digne, my point of view is not so much from the inside as from the outside.


Valko Chobanov I’m always sick at residencies. When I go abroad I am always sick. I curl up in a cocoon and endure, waiting for the temperature to pass, I don’t know if the mountain air is a factor. The only time I wasn’t sick, I was hungry because I had no money. There in Digne-les-Bains at least I wasn’t hungry. If I am not sick or hungry, I’m tired. The strategy is to wait for it to pass.


Карта с маршрути за модерно и съвременно изкуство в района Прованс-Алпи-Лазурен бряг. Източник: www.provence-alpes-cotedazur.com
Map of modern and contemporary art routes in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. Source: www.provence-alpes-cotedazur.com


Do you think artists should integrate their personal narrative within ‘community’ projects, let alone foreign ones at that? This question is more personal to each of you and your own intentions.



Rada Boukova The personal narrative is the only one I am able to develop.


Lazar Lyutakov I personally don’t believe that an artist can completely escape their personal narrative, it’s like forgetting who you are, but sometimes I have a hard time with works that only stay in that personal frame. I also have problems with projects that try to insert themselves into the specificity of something local at all costs, as if that a priori legitimizes their existence and success.I don’t think there’s anything magically capable of breathing sense into an artistic act that guarantees correctness, ability to interest an audience, truthfulness or impact for example.


Valko Chobanov You can’t help but integrate your personal narrative, at least any work you do as an artist eventually becomes part of that narrative.


Tsvetomira Borisova Well, according to Charles, that’s the most valuable thing we can include in our projects, and in that sense (having in mind he is the one who invited us), obviously it is. It’s also a more polite way to work with strangers – by giving them something of yourself. For me, the personal is always the motivator in my idea and approach, but rarely remains the visible center of the work. This time I might try to push it further, that would be a challenge for me.


Aaron Roth I think the work with communities can be relevant and interesting at times, but I still feel like it comes from some condition of the state that culture has to serve some demands on a national level that have nothing to do with art nor creativity (for example when we aim to develop a region and integrate some people and it ends up that conceptual art and jazz concerts in the park are on the same level for the state – culture becomes a tool). And it’s like trying to push a square through a round hole. But no money is free.

Otherwise, regarding the personal narrative, I think it has to be somewhere in the middle. The artist’s impressions should be included too, otherwise it’s boring.



I remember that on one of the last days Tsveti and Yana (Abrasheva) downloaded Tinder app to see “what the people in the city we work with and for are really like,” which was a diametrically different approach from what we had been doing, namely touring museums, economic structures (the thermae, the erosion observatory) and tourist routes. This was like getting to know the region through living life. What are your ways for this type of acquaintance (not Tinder, but getting to know a place)? And you can also share your Tinder strategies...



Tsvetomira Borisova Maybe the fact that we were a group, and we were following a certain schedule, kind of hindered us to get to know the locals. For example, I feel that if I were to return to Digne today, only Charles would recognize or greet me. I imagine acquaintances can be casual and spontaneous - having а coffee at the local cafe, holding the door for someone, asking the pharmacist for advice etc, some of the things we did. Maybe it helps to be alone...Often such encounters develop into something more, at the least into impressions of how open the local people are to such acquaintances.


P.S. The idea with Tinder turned out to be a bad one, because on that day there was a Rugby World Cup in the city and therefore we found mainly foreigners in the dating app. But at least that’s how we easily got an explanation of  the celebration at the square we came across the next day.


Valko Chobanov What? Tsveti is on Tinder?


Изглед към Дин-ле-Бан, 2023. Снимка: Бояна Джикова
View of Digne-les-Bains, 2023. Photo: Boyana Djikova

Do you think there should be plausibility in the work created as a result of residencies dedicated to a region? On the other hand, if this is a requirement, doesn’t it undermine the foundations of art per se?



Lazar Lyutakov Plausibility is constantly being renegotiated, and sometimes its boundaries can be vague. Take David-Neel (a French-Belgian traveller and theosophist, author of many travelogues about Tibet, books on Buddhism and spiritualism, who spent the last part of her life in Digne, where her home has been turned into a house-museum – ed.) and the story of her adopted son, who we considered a victim for a while, then Stephen (Stephen Loye – artist and resident of Digne – ed.) shed a very different light on him. I wouldn’t be surprised if the city government in Digne has a very different explanation for the abandoned shops than their owners or the people who live there. Not speaking someone’s language and being a foreigner, getting the wrong impression is also plausible, fiction too. Art can assemble an image from multiple, sometimes contradictory, plausibilities.


Valko Chobanov No, even if you make pure documentation of reality, it is always distorted through the prism of the subjective.


Rada Boukova I don’t think there is plausibility in any form of art, but art has the power to create reality. Surely there must be an analysis of the context so that you don’t make unconscious gestures.


Aaron Roth It would be nice, not obligatory, but from my perspective a lot of artists, that live by doing residencies, are doing the same dumb project in different countries, altered just a little bit so that it works for the specific region. I think this is on the verge of executing a commission, not art. Naturally, the location will affect the work.

When I was in China it took me a long time to figure out how to paint anything there, and to express the things that were going on around me. That wasn’t the purpose of my trip anyway, but it came as a matter of course.



Our residency raised the question of adapting the artworks for the audiences that will view them (as the exhibition will be realised in an urban environment in the closed shops of a central street) and the extent to which the work must have embedded the consciousness and the intention of this. I don’t think we were unanimous on this. And in that regard, where is the healthy line for you between tailoring art to the context of display and its commodification for the public in a way that it loses its authenticity?



Aaron Roth I think sometimes changing your work because of an audience can be offensive to the audience itself (i.e. it’s like you don’t have the presumption that they’ll understand your work and how much Foucault you’ve read) but maybe some things should be seen as an opportunity to interact with the audience.


Lazar Lyutakov It is impossible to define exactly where that line is, it is very individual. Having in mind that the reality of the artistic gesture always seeks sharing, I have no problem adapting what I do to a particular situation. I don’t think art loses its authenticity so easily. Some audience is always “present” in the making of an artwork, at least as some abstract group of people, some conglomeration of individuals important to the artist. Sometimes this group has a clearer, concrete silhouette, sometimes not. To conceive the existence of the work in the space of contact with the public does not mean that it abandons its authenticity and becomes insincere. What is defining to me is how exactly this sharing happens, what specific images are constructed. The project in Digne is an urban environment project, hence the resulting opportunities for a meeting with the audiences outside the museum or gallery framework.


Rada Boukova If we begin with the idea that every creative intuition is channeled into a realization that is addressed to a specific situation, we shouldn’t ask this question.


Valko Chobanov Well, at least it would be nice if we have a text translated into French.



An additional question for the enthusiastic ones (or if anyone wants to help me with curatorial strategy):


Do you think there is an ethic within our project that we need to follow for working with the closed spaces? My starting points for this question are, on one hand, the fact that we are foreigners (and even if we weren’t, none of us has lived there) and therefore we analyze a socio-economic situation from the outside, not as affected by it, but as observers, even voyeurs. Perhaps there is always to some extent suspicion of the ‘other’ (in this case, us) when we work with communities, but also curiosity on their part (if we perceive others as mirrors, the inhabitants of Digne might see themselves in us). Moreover, there is also the non-imperative nature of this activity – we are not invited to evaluate the social situation and explain it, but through our creativity we actually have absolute freedom for different interpretations and approaches. That is to say: how do you work for a social group without speaking on its behalf, but at the same time in a way that your project is still relevant to the social group? On the other hand, we talked about the risks of this type of project regarding the gentrification of the area (there are many examples of this, including in Bulgaria). Are there approaches to avoid it?



Rada Boukova These closed spaces speak a lot about the way modern life is organised. We all know places where the streets are like a museum of the past. Every gesture in this context is political.

The project of inviting foreign artists is in itself part of the role of cultural industries that rely on artistic activities on a symbolic level, to create economic effect and entertainment at the same time, a product for consumption, even tourism. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what our position is, that of each artist, how each of us would approach this context. Again the question is who the audience is and to whom the gesture is addressed.

It would not be possible to generalize who this social group is, rather each project should be

specifically located.

It seems interesting to me to create the proper language to communicate through each project in a way that does not rely entirely on recognition, universality, and exoticism.


Tsvetomira Borisova Well, it’s interesting maybe if EVERYONE in Digne, is a fan of ecology and the Old city. There is also a good chance that the new shopping center  actually offers better services or prices for the locals than the small stores. That shop in the centre where I gave 17€ for dried out organic oranges and another 10€ for rotten grapes, for example, was neither nice nor touching to me, nor do I want to pay attention to it in my work. We haven’t looked at this as an idea, the other side of what’s good and what’s not. So I don’t know if this can be approached economically or socially, at least I wouldn’t, nor would I approach it in a saving or preachy way. Rather, with my work, I’d like to do a little reverence to the region, to show something beautiful, almost like finding something there and putting a ribbon on it with the idea of “hey, look what’s here, it’s very nice.”


Lazar Lyutakov Even if we had lived there, we would still have been closer to some problems and farther away from others. Some of the locals probably feel more connected to us than to other people who live on their street, somehow we’re both outside and inside. Yes, we didn’t go there just to analyze or interpret any specific situation. We can do that too, but we can also ‘hook’ the

audience through some emotion, there are common human things that connect us. So I don’t think so much through the perspective of some affiliation. I think it’s a matter of fine tuning without clear rules. Sometimes the movement along the edge of certain ethical barriers is used by authors quite consciously (Sierra, Büchel).


On gentrification and art – we live in a reality in which the capital is able to monetize every cultural idea, to absorb it, to transform it into some kind of socio-economic change. These processes cannot be controlled through art, I don’t think that is its function. It is not just made by a good person for good people to reinforce the right views. In all the variety of what art can be, we can sometimes also encounter the destructive and schizophrenic energy of the confused person. Perhaps this could help us unpack reality and look deeper into it, and be a community able to take care and to change despite differences.



The residency was realized with the financial support of the National Culture Fund, Mobility Grant Programme. 

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