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THE CRACKS IN THE SCREENS AND THE EMPTY SQUARES OF PUBLICITY


A text by Vladiya Mihaylova

 

In Bulgaria, as well as in Eastern Europe, thinking about art in public space (within the horizons of recent history) means putting forward the problem about the shift within the notions of both ‘art’ and ‘public’. The heritage of socialism, on one side, and the opening up of the country after 1989, on the other, established a situation of internal fragmentation and entanglement of the horizons of history, values and art that all have as their vanishing point either the nation state (even now) and history, or (until recently) the West. In any case the situation created paradox, internal difference and conflict; all these define the notion of post-socialism and have specific expression from the viewpoint of neo-liberal processes. Within the framework of the country these are part of the as-of-yet unfinished project for the democratization of those institutions where art takes part.  

 

When in the 1980ies the artists in Bulgaria started organizing happenings, actions, exhibitions and performances in places different from those designated for the showing of art, they often did not think of their actions as anything other than experimentation. That was experimentation with the language which was familiar and allowed to be used, with themselves and, partially, with the audience. Soon enough this kind of experimentation entered a fight for the right to be contemporary art: the right over the brand ‘contemporary’, as well as for the innate right to autonomy, to social and political recognition, or in other words – the right to self-determination and self-definition[1], those rights that before 1989 belonged to the state. The situation I am describing here is similar to what Elzbieta Matynia defines as “performative democracy”[2] and to those meeting places located away from the ones determined by the structures of the totalitarian state where the “anonymous, impersonal and ‘institutional’ way of speaking was replaced by concrete, individual and distinctive voices.” In this case these are the places away from and outside of the official and central locations of power where artists meet, talk and experiment in a semi-public/semi-private, semi-hidden/semi-obvious way independently of the officially organized shows, conferences, art councils and juries, and so on. Places such as private apartments, beaches on the sea cost, plain-air and artistic colonies in the country side, and later various locations in Sofia – courtyards, parks, rooftops. The artistic experiments of the time did not have the goal to be civic actions nor were they directly linked to the critique of power. They were sporadic violations, even hooliganism. They were a form of escape from the task to (re)produce the visual and the symbolic languages of ideology, a process which in Bulgaria had started already in the 1960ies with the so called April Generation of artists and the search for a formal, instead of realist artistic language. However, for the first time in the 1980ies the scale of artists’ transgression of the administrative rituals and procedures, which structured the ‘sphere of art’ within the framework of the socialist state, was so massive.

 

All of this kick-started a process that democratized the field of art; last but not least all that happened through the search for a direct contact with the audience and through the attempts to go beyond the micro-publicity of the officially organized artistic life within the frames of the professional guild. Right around 1989 the desire for publicity spread over into the general political carnival (after Mikhail Bakhtin) of rallies and various actions: political actions were performative just like some performances transformed into political actions. The mass intoxication with the rising wave of history ‘burst’ into the public space, which at that time was simultaneously overly politicized and performative. Piotr Piotrowski defines this type of action as agoraphilia – a practice related to the “transgression of barriers separating cultural sphere and civil initiative, one grounded in the critique of the status quo undertaken with the goal of reshaping the social organism.”[3] Art followed the wave of political euphoria and the sudden cultural opening after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which released the possibility for a total restructuring of publicity. That is a process which was simultaneously related to opening up of the public space as well as to a number of actions within the existing institutions that were aiming, in the long run, at their transformation. The word “change” was a key phrase for the time. It was a political slogan hiding the all-encompassing and not-really-clear notion for a wholesome process, which soon enough clashed with the real mechanisms and structures, institutions and forms of knowledge that had been in production for ages. Although stripped of their ideological mask, those were still forming the skeleton of the public and institutional life.

 

We might say that this initial and elemental process remained on the level of shared euphoria. The situation changed relatively fast. In just a few short years there was already a disappointment, which became the mark of the so called ‘Bulgarian transition’ ever since. This is a transition, which is characterized by a lack of political will to restructure the institutions, by not-implemented political decisions and by the domination of corrupt private interests. In his text from 1990 titled “The Crisis of Art-Knowledge. Stops towards an Aesthetic of Manipulation”[4], Luchezar Boyadjiev is writing about (though not comparing directly) the public rallies and the strikes, on one side, and the individuation of the artist’s gaze, on the other. The second item presupposes an analysis of the structures of knowledge and legitimation, which were organizing both reality and the language of art. “People are already aware that their bodies and abilities have not only a use value for the others but also some kind of an exchange value too, while gradually beginning to exercise their ‘legal’ right over both their own bodies and abilities”. However, in both cases the author is describing the action as an excess – as blackmail, a manipulation.  The individual’s gaze, by whom the author means precisely the ability to self-determination and self-nomination, is the gaze of the self-enamoured Narcissus – he is creating a new type of privilege. That is the privilege of the private; of the private interest, which once accepted as a possibility, invades the public sphere with excessive aggression going together with the new sense of freedom.  

 

Thus started a long process of renegotiating the public and the private, which is expressed in the works of artists – not only in public actions but also in the attitudes to the private and the public (the common); in the irony and the symbolic ‘decommissioning’ of the state-owned and the national; in voiding various symbols and signs; in the states of aggression and/or poverty; in the notion of the lost place/status and the new ambitions; in the utopia of the West, and so on. At the very beginning of the 1990ies though all of this was related to the dismantling of the symbolic world of ideology and literally – the emptying of public space. This emptiness is first and foremost semiotic. That is the emptiness of the very language of ideology, which is no longer legitimate and is unmasked as being false.  On the level of institutions this emptiness was seen as a lack, as an insufficiency – a lack of those new structures, organizations, policies and circumstances that might create a “normal” (according to Alexander Kiossev that is a utopian desire but still a part of the democratic process) environment for art[5]

 

The new conflicts, contradictions and inequalities coming forward while in the process of renegotiating the public and the private are especially visible in the urban environment. Here I use as a starting point the David Harvey notion of the city as a living environment where various social links, ways of life, aesthetic values and so on are made visible.[6] Within the city the process of privatization and restitution, together with the invasion of private capital, are related to the redrawing of the inner borders and hierarchies of spaces; to the widening and the transformation of the center and the periphery of the city; to the emergence of new forms of representation such as advertisement, for instance; and with the creation or the destruction of symbols and places of memory. All of this is changing not only the geographical or the urban articulation of cities; it has historical, political and value-wise implications for society as a whole.      

 

Bulgaria has never passed a law for lustration just like it never came up with strategic, political or cultural acts meant to rethink and transform its recent past. The institutions of the country remain in a strange political ‘limbo’ – not socialist anymore but not yet democratic either. It is the same with the art institutions – at the same time poor, marginal and outdated against the backdrop of the globalization processes.  One of the visible incarnations of the political ‘limbo’ in the city are some key monuments from the socialist times and mainly their fate after 1989. Although already in the early 1990ies there were various artistic projects for their re-thinking there was never a real plan nor a solution reached.  The projects were developed, presented and debated (in some cases) mostly within the sphere of artistic life, which co-exists somehow parallel to the political sphere – this is to say that ultimately it remains locked up in its own micro-publicity. On the other hand, the very urban environment is creating new symbols that are often in conflict with the old ones. Nobody is looking for reevaluation of the past; rather there is obliteration and/or isolation of the past (by marginalizing it) while most decisions are related to some kind of a political (self)-representation.  A good example is the demolition of the Mausoleum of George Dimitrov in the center of Sofia in 1999 during the rule of the democratic parties. There was no public debate about it whatsoever. For years the question about the possible demolition of the Monument to the Soviet Army stays open while the space surrounding the monument is for a long time now a skaters’ playground and a meeting place. In the last few years one of the high relief compositions on the side of the monument was transformed into a strange tribune for activist, political statements (“a stage for political art”[7]). One of the most significant graffiti interventions from 2011 had the slogan “In tune with the times” and represented American comics and pop-culture heroes spray-painted over the bronze figures of the soldiers on the relief itself thus transforming them beyond recognition. Later on the same location sustained reactions related to: the Anti-ACTA protests; those in support of Pussy Riot (both 2012); the day of respect for the victims of communism was marked too (2013). Also the begging for forgiveness for the participation of Bulgaria in the occupation of Prague in 1968 was a separate action (2013). There were also various graffiti made about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia (2014). Similar fate – on one side, a lack of a clear state policy and on the other – various artistic and civic reactions, has the monument named “1300 Years Bulgaria”, which is part of the architectural complex of the National Palace of Culture in the center of Sofia. In 2008 the public space of the city saw the advertisement of a local mobile phone operator whose slogan unequivocally propagated the demolition of the monument. This case was revealing in as much as it made visible the process of manipulation of public opinion concerning the problem and possible solution for this particular location.       

 

However, advertisement itself, as a phenomenon in the urban environment as well as an ideological transmitter of private interests, together with architecture that are the instruments of the “new” capital, which are most visible in public space. Between 2003 and 2006 the interdisciplinary project Visual Seminar of the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Center for Advanced Study (both in Sofia) aimed to solve or at least to put to open debates some of these problems. The main focus of the project was visual culture and its leading territory – the city environment of Sofia. Its political stakes were in disturbing the inherited professional restrictions (related to specific knowledge structures) and, on the other side, transgressing the cultural micro-publicity in search for an open civic dialogue with the politicians. This last goal aimed to overcome the isolation in which the whole sphere of culture still exists. Thus in fact the project offered a plan for strategically overcoming the agoraphobia; a plan rooted in the research of the city environment and in the visual analysis of its interface.        

 

The very problem of the redistribution or the renegotiation of the public and the private, which I am using here in order to pose the question of publicity, has been investigated in depth in the texts and works of Luchezar Boyadjiev. “’Neo-capitalism’ is that kind of ‘capitalism’ among so many others, which is originating in late socialism – as we know it in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc in Europe. More precisely, neo-capitalism is grounded in the post-socialist situation and its main question – the re-distribution of public wealth (is as much as it was available and in the way it was available), accumulated before 1989. The resolution of this question is actually masked as a process to re-define the concept of ‘private property’, to secure its legal guarantees and fiscal fortification. There is a plan for the construction of neo-capitalism, no matter how ironic that may sound. In theory, neo-capitalism is constructed after a particular model – the model of western European market economy and parliamentary democracy. In reality, neo-capitalism envelops according to its own logic and appearance of collapse while actually masking the hidden re-grouping of elites, re-distribution of wealth, entrenchment into new political and economic alliances, etc.”[8] The process of investigation of this neo-capitalist situation is above all a visual affair. In the collages of Luchezar Boyadjiev various images from the city screen are being superimposed, interwoven and overlapped. The expansion of capital is seen as an instrument for the construction of a ‘new’ reality. This is where hierarchies, values and models for living are being redistributed; this is where gender roles are changed and so are the family structures, the notions for good and evil, the forms of social success, the public authority and so on. Within the framework of his project “Hot City Visual” (part of the Visual Seminar) the artist placed an advertisement of a Romani family (“Stefan’s Brigade”), engaged in the ‘business’ of carrying heavy loads around town, on the main façade of the National Art Gallery in Sofia. In this he exercised directly the power of his individual artist’s gaze, which is not only registering and mixing images but is actively participating in the re-organization of hierarchies and hot spots around the city.        

 

Luchezar Boyadjiev is part of that first generation of artists who broke down the limits of the administrative procedures and made the ‘turn’ towards the social, the audience, the investigation and the critique of cultural circumstances[9]. In his works the straddling between the privileged position of the artist (which was part of the very profession within the socialist state) and the new role of the citizen is especially visible. This is closely linked to the question of publicity and critique; to concrete circumstances and social problems as much as to the very institution of ‘art’ itself. In itself this process or project is still unfinished and that is why, from the viewpoint of the local context indeed, the work of the younger generation of artists remains committed to the process of the political and democratic restructuring of the cultural sphere.     

 

Ivan Moudov is an artist who in most of his works is dealing with the playing out of various institutional models as much as with the unmasking of their inner paradoxes. In 2005 he organized an action for the simulated opening of the then none-existing Museum of Contemporary Art in the space of one of the railroad stations of Sofia – the Poduene train station. His project was also part of the Visual Seminar mentioned earlier. It deals directly with the information environment of the city space in Sofia and with the channels for dissemination of ‘news’. The billboards, the posters and the well-ahead-of-time distribution of the press release were accompanied by a cleverly devised plan for how to announce the ‘news’; it featured also a teaser-like mention of the name of Hristo Javashev (the famous Bulgarian-born artist Christo). The work is as much an artistic action as it was an experiment with the audience; it is functioning on the level of the so called ‘common sense’ and namely – it is dealing with the set of notions and believes that are structuring the everyday life of people. Within the concrete situation of Bulgaria the project made visible one more aspect – the easiness with which public delusion is created; the lack of the need to look for verification and the limitless simulative nature of the public sphere. In other words – blackmail had become the norm!

 

Similar to those is another action by Ivan Moudov in the fall of 2012 at the former location of the demolished mausoleum in Sofia. It is concerned with the political problem of illegal construction and the ‘new’ Bulgarian architecture, which are often the product of (to use the Luchezar Boyadjiev expression) “economic and political alliances”. The attention of the public was once again attracted through a well planned and conceived delusion, which is by now a conceptual strategy within the works of the artist. The action succeeded in provoking immediate visual recognition and managed to literally dupe the passersby-viewers-citizens. On the Facebook page of Transformatori, a collective of young architects in Sofia, appeared a short notice with information and a photograph of the location – the fenced up and transformed into a construction site former spot of the mausoleum. At first it caused the indignation of those architects themselves and later – a heated discussion. Among the various opinions, rejections and indignations there was also a statement saying that the so called “mutro-consciousness sees everything in the light of the mutro-image”. In order to read this short phrase on the level of ‘common sense’ and the vernacular language in Sofia one should keep in mind that the term ‘mutri’ is the jargon definition of the ‘new rich’ – those people who accumulated their capital through various grey-economy enterprises. The phrase itself contains references to Lenin’s theory of reflection according to which consciousness not only reflects but also creates the world. Moudov’s action operates on the level of attracting the attention of the passersby; it aims to transform them into viewers without them even realizing it. Then it gives them the chance to act as citizens. The process is open ended but it is linked to the whole artistic strategy of the author. By consciously staging situations and delusions he is contributing to the momentous revelation of truths as well as to demonstrating the paradox of the system – the system of art as well as the whole political system.                       

 

There is a similar logic in a lot of the works of Kamen Stoyanov too – especially those where institutional and political absurd is played out. Unlike Ivan Moudov though, he is not creating delusion but is openly staging ‘theater’ or producing satire using the popular format and language of the media. Works such as the performance “Transporting Culture” (2010) or “Cultural Mousaka” (2010), presented as a TV culinary show, art witness to that. However, the investigation of institutional paradox in his works started much earlier. It is related to the marginal and forgotten spaces of the city, the poor districts where the artist is documenting various situations or performative actions. These are later exhibited in a variety of forms in exhibition spaces. The photograph depicting an old panel building with the sign „Guys, this is not LA, but it’s a cool place too! Advertise here” (2010) is one of the many examples. Here the poverty and the stream of capital are presented with humor and from the viewpoint of the human world and imagination. A lot works by Kamen Stoyanov are concerned with the private world; they see the human being as an individual who dreams, imagines, hopes, believes, feels lonely, travels, and changes. This whole spectrum of experiences is shown in videos and/or photographs where the feeling for the fullness of life, for the small pleasures hidden in the mundane and routine actions is always present. In 2007 Kamen Stoyanov made a performance in the Sofia City Art Gallery under the title “Reality is much more beautiful than fiction”. The action took place within the first (historically) exposition of the gallery, which was reconstructed on the occasion of the anniversary of the institution. The artist was showing on TV sets his videos related to marginal actions and people who are filmed literally on the street, while moving and installing the TVs in the gallery space and also while communicating with the audience. In this case the fiction turned out to be the exhibition space while the desire of the artist was to include the everyday world within the pristine museum environment.      

 

The works of Ivan Moudov and Kamen Stoyanov represent a kind of institutional critique although they relate differently to the art and publicity; they are a lot less analytical and much more performative. The action is the leading factor there and it is most often linked to a concrete situation. Their works (as well as they themselves) are part of a much more networked society where publicity is a complex construction. The limits of the permitted, on one side, and of the politically active – of the transgression, on the other, are surprising and not always obvious there. This situation is much closer to what Piotr Piotrowski has in mind by agoraphilia after 1989 when the conditions of the very public space are close to the radical democracy linked to conflict, which had been described by Chantal Mouffe. The question remains then to what extent and is it at all possible that the critical experiences from one performative democracy are translated and used within the conditions of an intricately constructed neo-liberal and networked publicity?     

   


*The text was first published in "Visuelle Strategien. Urbaner Raum neu formuliert" (2014), edited by Vasilena Gannkovska.
 

[1] See further down the text by Luchezar Boyadjiev titled “The Crisis of Art-Knowledge. Stops towards an Aesthetic of Manipulation”, published in two parts in Art (Изкуство) Magazine, issues 5 and 6, 1990 in Sofia.
[2] Matynia, Elzbieta, “Discovering Performative Democracy”, New School for Social Research, 2009; http://www.societasethica.info/past-conferences-papers/2009-warsaw/1.334531/Matynia.pdf
„Such space was furnished for the early Solidarity gatherings by factories, universities, churches, even state enterprises. It was there that the anonymous, impersonal and “institutional” way of speaking was replaced by concrete, individual, and distinctive voices.” – p. 5
[3] Piotrowski, Piotr, “Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe”, Reaction Books, 2012 – “The state possessed various methods for enacting those policies, but its main goal was to render individual and collective initiatives of its citizens, members of the particular societies, more or less dependent on the monopoly of the political apparatus and to subordinate the public sphere to the ideological doctrine. Its opposite is agoraphilic, a practice predicted on transgression of barriers separating cultural sphere and civil initiative, one grounded in the critique of the status quo undertaken with the goal of reshaping the social organism.” – p. 7
[4] Boyadjiev, Luchezar in “The Crisis of Art-Knowledge. Stops towards an Aesthetic of Manipulation” – “There are some questions though. How could we know what our interest is provided we do not own ourselves; that is to say – we do not own our point of view? Is this, which we think of as our interest, not in fact the interest of another kind of utopia in the process of realization? Besides, what is the connection between knowing something and owning something? How is it possible that the yesterday’s functionary on the cultural front could transform into a blackmailer, how could the aggregate (the cog wheel) become a machine?” (1990, issue 5, p. 9); and also – “The psychological basis for the self-infatuation of Perseus, as well as for the self-infatuation of the newly born Narcissus, is the habit to power, which is the birth mark of Narcissus” (1990, issue 6, p. 22).
[5] Kiossev, Alexander. “Theoretical Memories” from the collection of essays “The Aunt from Gottingen”, Figura, 2005 – “That is why I will permit myself its characterization from a totally generalized and one-sided perspective – it was the blocking of all critical discourses. The East was overrun by what I called in another essay the “utopia of normality” – the desire that we should become like the normal countries, once again realized as the next import of Western political, institutional and cultural models (neoliberal market and democracy with all their institutions, market-oriented and expert professional attitudes)”, p. 31.     
[6] Harvey, David, “The Right to the City”, New Left Review 53, September – October 2008 („The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship with nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire.”)
[7] This definition is borrowed from the Wikipedia entry on the Monument to the Soviet Army where each single graffiti action is represented separately. http://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%B5%D1%82%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%BA_%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%A1%D1%8A%D0%B2%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B0_%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%8F_%D0%B2_%D0%A1%D0%BE%D1%84%D0%B8%D1%8F
[8] Boyadjiev, Luchezar. “Billboard Heaven (notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism)”. In: Ed. Al. Kiossev, “Interface Sofia”, 2006-9, p. 140
[9] Boyadjiev, Luchezar, „Why was I born an Artist?”, Kultura Weekly, # 14, April 5th 1991. I am quoting here from this text, which might have a biographical reading too since as far as his education and public presence until the end of the1980ies is concerned Luchezar Boyadjiev was recognized mainly as an art critic and art historian. In spite of this biographical aspect though, the text is above all a commentary on the power mechanisms and institutional procedures used for the production of an individual, of anybody precisely as an artist. “In general we might say that concerning this matter (the production of the artist) there is a decision made almost by voting at some point and then artists are ‘born’. When over the years I heard the level of conviction with which they would claim that this and nothing else is the true artist – creator and author, I felt in me the growing suspicion that artists are being born for a purpose. It seemed that the truth had been produced once and for all and no choice on the matter was ever possible.”

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