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In this conversation, Veni Kojouharova from Za Zemiata (For the Earth) Environmental Association introduces to the ways in which the organization incorporates art to achieve its goals. As one of the oldest active environmental NGOs, Za Zemiata focuses on creating campaigns and informing the public about environmental issues and exploitation of people and nature.

The material is an excerpt from a conversation with the organizers and the audience that took place on May 17 as part of the New Ecologies's public program at the space of Swimming Pool. This is the second publication with a focus on Art and Environment, look out for future texts in the coming months.

Разговор „Интегриран подход към екологията“, проведен на 17.05.2023 © Swimming Pool
Conversation “Integrated Approach to Ecology” held on 17.05.2023 © Swimming Pool

Veni, how do you understand the term “environment” and what led you to work for a nature conservation organization?

The term “environment” is not just about nature and conservation, it has social and economic dimensions. Actually, my interest in ecology did not start with mountains and birds, but with buildings. While studying in London, I ended up at a PR agency for architecture and design, where we strived to make buildings that are beautiful for their environment, but also useful and sustainable in the space they inhabit. I subsequently became involved in urban sustainable development in Scotland, working in an association of urban communities and the Scottish Government that helps the economic development of cities and benefits people. My main task was to support integrated plans that address these factors. Over time, I found that I preferred working in the NGO sector, which gave me more freedom to express what I believe in through different methods – one of which is the collaboration with artists.

Tell us more about Za Zemiata (For the Earth) Environmental Association.

Za Zemiata was founded as an anti-nuclear organisation in 1995, with energy being the main focus at the beginning. As time went on, we started to get more and more involved with the topic of waste and other issues. Our activities expanded while started working with international organizations and becoming part of other movements. Currently, the main issues are: air, zero waste, economic justice, and energy and climate. One of our key campaigns at the moment is the protection of the Kresna Gorge, which we have been running for 20 years – our aim is to oppose the construction of a motorway through the gorge and to take into consideration the alternative option of a motorway between Sofia and Greece. In this campaign, we are not only talking about biodiversity, which is unique in Europe, but also about local communities and what they need. The reason is that there are numerous factors that indicate such the current project would harm not only nature, but also the social well-being and economic development of the region.

How is a campaign structured, what are the resources you use and how do you involve artists?

An example of a campaign we collaborated on with artists, and which I am still working on, is the one against the extraction of natural gas. When I started working on it last year, I realised that the subject was terribly unpopular. On the one hand, we had a lot of preliminary research focused on the environmental issue – how fossil fuels affect nature and how the industry affects it. On the other hand, we had studies on the financial instruments that finance fossil fuels. At some point we realized getting too deep into the technical part was making it difficult for us to find a way to communicate the problem, and it was getting unrecognized by people. The society is presented to the idea that gas is a better alternative to coal, and in fact, it is. The challenge is to convince the public that, after all, the optimal and sustainable option we should demand for is clean energy. So for this campaign, we decided that the artistic intervention would be an installation entitled Energy for Peace, which we first presented in November 2022 and which features illustrations by four artists – Katrin Kochorapova, Michaela Angelova, Georgi Vassilev and Teodor Genov. Our idea was to show other problems arising from fossil fuel extraction than just the damage to the environment. We chose real stories that are related to human rights, economic dependencies and threats from totalitarian regimes. By visually depicting these issues, we thought we would have a stronger effect on people than just presenting reports. We showed the installation in The Mall in Sofia during Black Friday and many people who would not have come to an event on the subject were given the opportunity to learn. I think we succeeded to engage the people, including the illustrators.

Инсталация „Енергия за мир“, 2022 © Екологично сдружение „За Земята“
Energy for Peace installation, 2022 © Za Zemiata Environmental Association

You use art to visualise complex research and make it more accessible – but who are the target groups and communities you expect to address and activate?

Regarding the installation I mentioned, we don't want to present it only in Sofia, which is a logistical problem for now, but we plan to show it in Gabrovo and Veliko Tarnovo. We would also like to be on view in Varna and Dobrich, where a potential danger of new fossil fuel extraction projects exists if the moratorium on fracking is lifted. Coal mine areas whose communities we are working with are Stara Zagora, Pernik and Kyustendil, because there it is proving difficult to convince people there are other options.

We also try to involve the most affected residents, an example of which is the Art Lab for Clean Air organized in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, by our “Air” team. Artists from different disciplines were invited to think about the problem of air pollution. The results of the workshop were presented at a festival in a community centre in the Hristo Botev district – one of the most affected neighbourhoods in the city. Many engaged children and young people came to participate and brought an audience unfamiliar with the problems. Film, contemporary dance, puppetry and playback theatre were shown and the latter continue to be performed around Bulgaria. We wanted to involve people and artists that we could work with in a long-term perspective.

How do you choose the artists and how does the communication between the artist and your organisation take place during the project process?

Za Zemiata is a horizontal organization and I would say the process depends on the person in charge in the respective field. In the case of the “Energy for Peace” installation, I worked primarily with my colleague responsible for the communication – Violeta, to develop the idea. We had suggestions of people we could collaborate with who fit the artistic approach we were looking for. We also consulted with a person close to us who had worked on similar projects and subsequently invited him to curate. He helped us make the connection with the artists. It was important to us that the artists didn't have too much guidance, but that they had access to the problem and to information so that they could choose their own point of view for its presentation.

For the Art Lab, the “Air” team announced an open call. We are now preparing a board game on the theme of “Gas” and for it we are looking through personal contacts for someone who develops games. I would say that for every situation the approach is different.

How do you fund such collaborations with artists and what are the tools you use – additional funding, partnerships with other organisations and businesses?

At the moment these collaborations are happening on our own volition. In my opinion, to be able to participate in a project that involves a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach, it would be important to work on the idea with the curator and the artist, as well as apply for funding together. Including art into our campaigns depends on personal interest and a desire to bring people to the cause. I personally believe that art is such an important method and always try to budget for art. It's usually not very big, but I also avoid volunteering as I don't think it's right to expect someone to work without a fee.

Разговор „Интегриран подход към екологията“, проведен на 17.05.2023 © Swimming Pool
Conversation “Integrated Approach to Ecology” held on 17.05.2023 © Swimming Pool

How do you evaluate the success of these types of campaigns and what is the ultimate goal of your advocacy?

It is difficult to assess the impact. For me, it's a success when new people show up, in addition to the same 10 people who came before, and when the campaign resonates in the media and people start discussing. For example, the gas campaign is still difficult to say because we are in a phase where people need to understand what the problem is and what the solutions are. I think that conversation is now more visible.

The ultimate goal at European level is to have advocacy for a transition away from fossil fuels, specifically gas, by 2035. For Bulgaria, it is not to invest in new gas infrastructure. The vision for the final goal is the exit from fossil fuels, decentralisation of the energy system and empowerment of individual users. This is a long-term perspective for Bulgaria, while the short-term perspective is to switch from coal to gas.

Could you share organisations and awareness campaigns abroad that have worked in advocating such positions? Where are the best practices that we can implement here?

In Scotland, for example, the co-benefits model has been successful, showing how campaigns are effective and the integration of climate change into council policies has led to many benefits elsewhere. For example, the campaign for more sustainable transport and cycle lanes in the country was not always well received, even though cycling is more developed than in Bulgaria. But at one point during the pandemic, the campaign set out to inform that if cars were reduced, there would be less pressure on health facilities because of low levels of air pollution. The message worked well – get two for the price of one.

Campaigns including individual contribution move much faster than those for systemic change.

How well do European practices and ways of communicating work in Bulgaria?

I can say that we work differently with Sofia Municipality than with Gabrovo Municipality. In Bulgaria you work more or less with personalities. You will meet someone who agrees with the things you say and will be willing to work for change, but at some point you might get misunderstanding from another level in the administration. When we have international meetings with NGOs that work on fossil fuels and the output from them, at some point we end up with two sessions, one for Eastern Europe and one for Western Europe. A method that I have applied in Scotland would not necessarily work here. We have a different starting point.

In this respect, how do you think collaborations between activism and art can be improved and encouraged?

One of the best examples I've seen is in Bosnia and Herzegovina – through meetings between academics and experts working on the war in the former Yugoslavia and artists who have some interest in the subject. Long-lasting partnerships are created and this provides opportunity for deeper interdisciplinary work that is close to all involved.

I think it is mostly important that artists identify with the campaign and its cause, as well as that experts build partnerships with artists. This is perhaps not something that can always happen by itself, especially having difficulty accessing topics, although there are quite a few artists who have an interest in ecology. So I think it would be nice to have a discussion like this between ecologists and artists that could serve as a catalyst for ideas, and at the very least, provide a space for exploration.

VENI KOJOUHAROVA has experience of working in the public, private and non-governmental sectors in Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. She joined Za Zemiata’s team in 2021 as part of the Energy & Climate team with a focus on fossil fuels phase out and just transition. Before that she has worked in Scotland, where she worked on urban sustainable development through working with local authorities, as well as through delivering climate and energy trainings for the civil service and politicians. Her interest in for the urban environment and its sustainable development developed while working in an architecture and design focused PR agency.
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