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HOPE IN THE NORTHWEST

Ideas Factory is an organisation that has been working in Bulgarian villages for years in order to activate local communities and lately has been doing so increasingly through art. Therefore, they have regular open calls for artists to participate in residencies in the coming months. We talk to Yanina Taneva, one of the founders of the Factory, about the critical need for decentralization in Bulgaria, the basic needs in the regions, and the organization's partners in this initiative as well. The questions were asked by Viktoria Draganova.


Photo: Desislava Todorova

Yanina, you have been working in Bulgarian villages for years – what provoked you and Ideas Factory to embark on this venture?


It's a long story, but if I have to be both honest and brief, I was provoked by the meetings in the villages during the ethnographic expeditions of the Ongal Association. Back then, I explored the possibilities of what young and old, urban and rural cultures could give to each other. The journey took us first to the Baba Residence, and since three years we have been working more closely with artists – from the fieldwork we simply realised that the need for participation, communication and respect 'screamed' much louder than the improvement of the physical environment, which we had also, but not only, been doing up to then.


The new residency is happening in northwestern Bulgaria – what are the needs there?


The Northwest is entangled in a narrative of poverty and pathlessness that closes off a myriad of opportunities that the region would have if looked at with 'resource' glasses. In that sense, the Northwest needs narratives of hope and imagination, and from there on anything would be possible.


This is often the first time artists have worked in such a context – how do you support them?


We know that working with communities is not necessarily an artist's strong point, especially in Bulgaria, so we summarise and pass on our experiences in different forms, before and during residencies. We are also lucky to work in a wonderful international network of interdisciplinary professionals with our socio-cultural profile. From this we draw strength - thanks to a sense of belonging, but without the illusion that everything is applicable everywhere, because our rural context is very different from Germany, Switzerland or Northern Italy. That's why we prefer the locally originated models. We see a permanent change of direction in some artists, and even the awareness of the reality outside the "white cube" is already a great victory over the torn social fabric.


Photo: Iliyan Ruzhin

What are your objectives? How will you create sustainability of your work in the villages?


We aim to make village life not a rough one. We want to address the so-called "geographically determined" rights, the most important of which is to deal with the issue of access and participation in culture in small settlements. According to a study we did with the support of the National Culture Fund in January 2023, over 69% of people in villages would visit and participate more regularly in cultural life if there were financial concessions; 40% if the issue of transport accessibility were settled. Our conclusion from these figures is that people have a hunger for classical forms such as theatre and cinema, but are also open and curious about new art forms.


Sustainability will come when we connect community centres (chitalishte) and local communities with contemporary culture. This is what we aim to do through our programmes and projects: through the Right to Culture Lab we bring together a cross-sector community including local authorities, community centres and artists to get to know each other and find opportunities to work together. To this end, we provide the opportunity for 'try-out' sessions and outreach work with us, as well as a production budget. It's important to us that an artist who wants to work with communities but hasn't before feels supported in taking this step.


Tell me more about your current projects.


Through our initiative Revitalising Villages through Creative Activities we are currently establishing six residential centres in villages across our network so that contemporary culture has an easy 'gateway' into communities where it is desired and seen as potential by the locals themselves. This project is under the Cultural Enterprise, Heritage and Cooperation programme of Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway. We have six residencies coming up in the villages respectively, some of which still have places and artists can apply here.


Снимка: Илиян Ружин
Photo: Iliyan Ruzhin

Is there a place for this discourse in the city art institutions?


Yes, of course, as long as the centre-periphery dynamic is in no way compensated and alien to the reality of the capital. Neighbourhoods, villages in the suburbs – all of them, should be treated in this way and with the idea of compensatory mechanisms overcoming chronic deficits of non-participation in culture – it could be residencies, it could be cultural vouchers, etc.


What is happening in the Tandem network of European organisations, which you recently hosted in Sofia? What are the issues that provoke the creation and functioning of such networks?


For us, this meeting was a celebration of a community of practice, a sense of belonging and an opportunity to get feedback on our work, while also inspiring colleagues to draw on our experience. The most important recent process, however, has focused on understanding that our specific work – which sits between the cultural and the social, and works in peripheral areas – needs a new kind of advocacy, more flexible models that welcome cultural and social innovation. This is what we are trying to do with colleagues in the successor programme to Tandem Europe, today Tandem Regions, with whom we quite consciously came together around the priority of culture as an acupuncture point in small places.


What are the priorities that you place in such networks? Do you have a sense of common issues with other European regions?


The European Commission recently issued a recommendation to the European Parliament to address the widening gap between cosmopolitan urban centres and depopulating and deprived 'peripheries', although the use of the term 'periphery' is quite controversial because it is only as seen from a 'centre', and to the people in it it is a 'centre'. New programmes are envisaged – much more complex and interdisciplinary, unlike the previous rural programmes which failed to address chronic problems and created new ones. There is a similar situation to ours throughout southern and large parts of eastern Europe - Spain, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, regions of Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. That is, the models that we are seeking to create here can easily be adequate in these regions as well, naturally with local adaptation.


The project Revitalising villages through creative activities is implemented with financial support of 199,883.17 € provided by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway under the EEA Financial Mechanism. Its main objective is to contribute to the creation of a sustainable cultural and entrepreneurial model addressing the depopulation of villages through access to culture in villages.

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