The Week of Contemporary Art 2022 Plovdiv took place in September, and its focus was put again on interventions in urban environments. This year's edition of the the large-scale event that is organised for the 28th time by the Art Today Association, was curated by Galina Dimitrova under the title "The Weight of Being". Besides the fact that the edition included many local and international artists, most of them with newly commissioned works, the Week also caused an unexpected clash with local people and administrative structures, which raised pressing questions about what it means to create art directly in the city. Galina Dimitrova and Viktoria Draganova talk about the curatorial framework and subsequent reactions. In the second part of the material we publish the artists' and curators' positions.
Read the second part here.
Galina, let's start with you telling us about the curatorial concept and the general ideas around this project.
The title I gave to the Week of Contemporary Art in Plovdiv is "The Weight of Being", a direct reference to Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". I was excited to present a more philosophical view of things, because the times we live in are very difficult and contradictory, they require us to constantly take positions, and often these positions make us very different, confront us with people, even close people. In his novel, Kundera deals mainly with existence and the antagonisms that accompany us in it, and the opposition "weight - lightness" is, according to the writer, the most mysterious and polysemous. The focus of my research was the thirst of today's person to free herself – from thoughts, actions, responsibilities.
Total immersion in reality often limits the field of possible decisions and choices, the philosophical prism seems to counteract exactly this and succeeds in setting a distance to the everyday, giving space for reflection, and why not reaction.
My call was mostly directed to reclaiming the weight of being, which is a worthy existence, even though it costs us much heavier ordeals and choices. But you remind me of another spectrum in the curatorial concept – that of beauty as the last phase of evolution. The beauty of exploring and self-exploring, being able to keep your focus on what you think is important. This is very difficult these days, we yield very easily to manipulation and control. The pandemic has particularly brought these things to the table.
How have the artists reacted to the ‘weight of being’? It's interesting that you set a philosophical framework, but you put the artists in the situation of a real collision with the social by taking them out of the white cube and placing them in the city.
The artists I invited have experience with art in public space, we also share common approaches in our practice. Especially with those who made new artworks – Luchezar Boyadjiev, Veronika Tzekova, Venelin Shurelov and Sevdalina Kochevska – embrace the opportunity to start from the more philosophical and get to something more direct that would be visible in the urban space. This format is much more challenging, much more difficult: we feel more comfortable in the white cube – it's an environment that we know, and people there come with the specific intention of seeing an exhibition, they already have some reason to visit it, be it out of curiosity or other interest. It's a slightly more prepared audience. By situating the work outside, in an everyday situation where most people are passers-by, you enter into a very different relationship. It's not the kind of audience that's ready to encounter the artwork – and that's the cause of the reactions afterwards.
You have already worked in urban environments within your curatorial practice, and many of the projects raise questions of the relations in public space.
Yes, from the very beginning my curatorial practice has been related to this way of working. Back in 2000, together with the artists from InterSpace Media Art Center, where I was working at that time, and with colleagues from Manchester, we made an interactive video installation in public space – Urban Cycles – in the central foyer of the National Palace of Culture. It was a very technically sophisticated installation that relied on the interaction of visitors to assemble and see the artist's work. Then we observed many different reactions of the audience – from passing by, to curiosity, to amusement. After that, a few more InterSpace projects took place in public space, such as Macrovideo, a video selection of young Bulgarian artists with a large-format projection on the facade of the National Palace of Culture. My interest in art in public space continued in my further curatorial practice, for example the festival "For People and Place" in West Park, Sofia, which I realized with the Credo Bonum Foundation in 2012–2014, while working there. The idea of this festival was to present contemporary art forms to people living on the periphery of the city, which in turn would change their position from observers to active participants. Therefore, it happened in a familiar park environment that offers free access and invites their participation. Now, I continue to develop this format of art presented in an accessible way in Vratsa with the festival that started this summer in Dabnika Park. My PhD thesis, which I recently completed (2016–2020), is also based on this topic – I looked at the intervention in the urban environment as an artistic practice that expresses the critical position of the artist.
Tell me a bit more about some of the artistic interventions that have taken place in Plovdiv and how they define our relationship to urban space.
Intervention is a very interesting method because it is specific for the space, and often the moment of relationship with the audience is also there. For example, Venelin Shurelov chose his work "Random Theater" to be on the main street in Plovdiv, right opposite the theatre. It became a direct commentary on the institution "theater". The work is a concrete-looking object that houses a small stage inside, with space open on both sides. Thus, passers-by could choose how to look, whether from the audience side or the actors' side, and decide in what way to interact. Many took selfies, some started skits, others looked sideways and wondered what it was all about. This is already a work that is designed for a particular place, and inherently includes the element of interaction.
Veronika Tsekova's installation "grAD'' (a play on words in Bulgarian – ‘grad’ means ‘city’, and ‘ad’ – ‘hell’ – ed.) was not designed to evoke interaction, it came later. Veronika actively works with letters in her practice. For the Week she proposed a large typographic object for the Central Square provoking reflection on what the contemporary city has become. She takes into account its actual manifestations and people's interaction with it, but also isolation, loneliness and all those things that also keep people apart from each other and prevent them from coming together in a community. It was really interesting for us to see how people interacted with this work, for example, one day we found all the letters lifted up and so it said 'City'. It's like the residents want to reclaim their city.
Sevdalina Kochevska's work "The Wall" was meant to provoke a reaction, especially because of the direct reference to the war in Ukraine. But it was more than that – it was also philosophical and poetic. The reason for the strong reactions to this work was, on the one hand, the direct reference to the war, but many also perceived the work because of the artist's choice of location. It was as if something ‘ugly’ was being done in a very important location of the city, which disturbed and even frightened the tourists above all. From my observations, it was curious exactly for the tourists to find out what was going on.
A few days after the opening, on September 6, the Reunification Day of Bulgaria, Sevdalina's work was removed prematurely. How do you evaluate this act?
Then Plovdiv becomes a tribune for the celebration of the holiday, and the procession passes right by Sevdalina's work. The likelihood that the installation might cause some inconvenience to the dignitaries may have disturbed the people at the Municipality who have then ordered the work to be removed for fire safety. By that time I had already left Plovdiv, but I immediately reacted on my Facebook profile that for me the removal of Sevda's "The Wall" was censorship, because the fate of an artwork was a one-man decision that aimed to avoid criticism and disapproval. In fact, mixed reactions had emerged during the long process of preparing the work. Many questions arose even then, but we took them as a welcome, a signal of curiosity and anticipation. On social networks, mostly, lively discussions started and were quite controversial – some strongly supported the work, others denied it. Several articles appeared in well-known online media, such as " Pod tepeto". I guess the municipal structures have recognized that this is a pretty ‘hot’ artwork, and have decided that maybe it is not a good idea to stay there, in order not to provoke bigger reactions, especially from some prominent politicians.
How would this inform your future curatorial practice? Perhaps it is the beginning of a conversation that has not existed before or has only just begun.
Oh yes, I don’t want to solely criticize. On the contrary, for me it is the beginning of a debate that is missing – this is exactly what we discussed with Luchezar Boyadjiev and Diana Popova in "Museum on Air" (Bulgarian National Radio broadcast – ed.). If the situation manages to provoke a conversation in the public space, for me that is positive and let it happen. I think art has the role to ask questions, to provoke emotions, reflections and experiences, to make you think about why the artist did this, how we perceive it. It is the social reflection that is very important. At the end of the day, art exists as a visual object and it takes all the consequences for that.
How did the artists react, and how this transformed the exhibition as a whole?
For the artist, every project is valuable, important and personal, and when something like this happens, there is pain and sadness at first. But on the other hand, they all knew that by going out there, we can't predict what the audience's reactions will be and what feedback it will elicit. Maybe it's better than that, if nothing had happened, it would have meant that nobody noticed the art, that's even sadder. Although some of the reactions were not planned or expected, as I told about Veronika's work, or the vandalisation of Venelin's project, these reactions are interesting for us and give us something to reflect on. This interaction, even the vandalism, I would also define as a mirror of our society. Even if for us it is a rather primal reaction of rejection, it shows that the artwork was not only noticed, but that it caused some irritation, something that provoked these people to react in this way. Likely, their reaction is provoked by the fact that it is something new and unusual for them and they find no other way to express their (mis)understanding of it.
Outside the format of the Week, we still rarely observe art in a public environment; only recently the programs "Outside" and "Outdoors" were launched in Sofia. This is new not only for the public, but also for us as artists and curators, and we have yet to gather experience in a public setting. Perhaps there is also a need for a new understanding of the role of the artist and what an artistic practice needs to combine in order to make sense of its existence in an environment as complex as the urban. It also raises the larger question of what is our understanding of the communal, the social.
Yes, this is a complex subject – I have been thinking and working a lot in this direction, as well as exploring it in my PhD thesis. The big question for me is how to guide that process a little better and be a little more prepared for reactions and unexpected connections to the interventions we do with the artists. I think a more interconnected process with the audience can happen through community and participatory art approaches where the artist has the opportunity to work with a community. Similar to what our colleagues from TAM, Veliko Tarnovo are doing in Varusha South – a long-term activity with the residents of the neighbourhood and with creative people who start working with the locals. These are very interesting practices for me, where you can work with the community. But they are new to Bulgaria and require a lot more time and dedication from the artists to conceive. These practices are my favourite – and here (in Vratsa) I am trying to start little by little similar projects where we link artists with communities and show the power of art to change the community.