A conversation with Krasimira Butseva and Julian Chehirian about The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945 – 1989), an exhibition project that is presented at two locations in Sofia: at Sofia City Art Gallery and in old building on Benkovski St. that the artists transformed into their studio. Following a contrasting logic in constructing an abstract narrative about a complex subject such as trauma, this two-part exhibition is a good occasion to discuss some basic approaches and issues in working with communities, especially when navigating in the field of memory. Viktoria Draganova posed the questions.
The Neighbours is a two-part exhibition project in two different spaces, contrasting each other: if one part is an exhibition including a video projection, found objects, and an archive of books, the other evokes the experience – with found furniture from the time, the authors recreate rooms where visitors can enter and relive the daily life of those who passed through the Bulgarian Gulag, and prisons while listening to their memories. Why did you choose this approach – to divide the narrative into two, while choosing different strategies for dealing with audiences?
Krasimira Butseva Each of us works with different forms and media, which has led us to not only create different spaces and experiences but also to use different methodologies in working with history and art. For example, I use photography, film, and sound, and alongside that, I do academic research. Having researched the topic of political violence which is present in the exhibition for years, I have always felt the inability of each of these media, examined individually, to narrate and tell a complex story – they either reach a particular audience or can’t say everything that I wished for. My colleagues in the project, Julian Chehirian and Lilia Topouzova, and I have spoken about this several times, and they share similar experiences.
At the Sofia City Art Gallery, where one part of the exhibition is taking place, the approach is traditional and therefore different from the one in our studio. The focus is on the archive – what it contains, and what it doesn't; the stories beyond it, but which must be a part of it. Here, we unfold the subject of political violence historically – the visitor enters a space for reading and looking, where memoirs by survivors can also be accessed. In the studio, we have created a space to listen to the memories of survivors. By combining the materiality of the past with sounds and videos from the camps, as well as fragments from the interviews, we thought we could form a more complete picture of the personal and internal understanding of the past and the trauma associated with it.
How did you organize the spaces and what is their dramaturgy?
Julian Chehirian The dramaturgy is based on an interdisciplinary, multi-medium approach that has required us to negotiate the expressive capacities of its constituent modes. We’ve drawn on the traditions, for example, of the total artwork, the fine arts, noise music, theater, video art, and sound design. But we are most influenced by our ethnographic observations of survivors’ homes. The challenge has always been: how do we commingle all of these modes without losing the core thing in this work: the audience’s attention to the interviews? It has been a long road, with conflict at times between our visions of this as a physical installation and/or a sound installation.
A challenge for this project, since it was from its inception about creating a space, was: how do we organize attention within it? If there is architecture, furniture, and domestic objects – with all of their divergent colors and signifiers – how do we “lead” the audience down a specific path of attention? Our spaces are not “sets” in the sense of theater or film as there are no actors to gesticulate or guide the gaze. Some visitors are reminded of aspects of the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, though their installations are more often illustrative of a fictionalized narrative (echoing Ilya’s earlier work as an illustrator). With our project, which is more documentary, there is no single narrative or metaphorical character involved. Rather, we work with a polyphony of fragmented memories embodied by different voices in each space. Small objects and bedside lamps signal the presence of different survivors’, turning on and off as their presence emerges and fades over the duration of the work.
The difficulty of finding a unified solution to these dramaturgical problems led us to decide that we could not express our ideas with a single space. There had to be a spectrum, fading from the ethnographic to the abstract, and vice versa. The three spaces – living room, bedroom and kitchen – enact that spectrum in a graduated manner.The earliest version of this project was to stage an installation in a hotel room in Belene. From there the idea relocated to an actual apartment in Sofia. Later, a private gallery, then a museum, then a rented space. Somehow, the final project synthesized all of the preceding ideas by organizing the concept across two contraposed sites – a state gallery and a set of private residences fabricated by us in a temporary building.
What kind of methods did you use to shape, contextualize, guide the viewer through the experience?
Julian Chehirian In the final work, several dynamic elements channel energy and attentiveness within the space. Lighting changes, demarcating the alternating absence and presence of visits by the ethnographers (Lilia Topouzuova and Krasimira Butseva) who witness survivors. This lighting also provokes the audience to move between active and dormant areas, thus creating another layer of witnessing or bearing witness. Projections turn on and then disappear, like fogs that intervene upon domestic furniture and objects with phenomena and textures that we’ve recorded from the sites of the former labor camps. This is a method through which we experimented with the formal similarities and symbolic contrasts between what is projected and what is projected upon. The experience, I think, is one of evanescence. Noises – from domestic and field recordings – insert themselves into thickening moments of silence after survivors’ voices have withdrawn from the space. A record player and a coffee maker hiss into and retract from perceptibility periodically. Then there are the voices themselves, which emerge from multiple points within the first two installations. This diffusion of presence within the space creates a kind of unstable and active field of anticipation, then momentary comprehension, then a return to a fog of uncertainty and temporal elasticity.
The door of the studio, with its hissing door phone, is a threshold. And beyond that threshold is a realm. Within it, there are certain rules, structures, and iconographies. In short, to create a temporary space that the memory we work on could occupy, we felt it necessary to create conditions under which it could be listened to and absorbed. Every medium has an “attentional regime” of its own. Viewing a painting, the lighting might organize our attention, or the composition might dictate; or, if there is figuration, the unspoken communications and gestures of bodies might guide our interpretation. In film the camera directs the gaze within a space. There is also, as Michael Baxandall has written, a “period eye” that further determines, historically, how we see what we see.
How are you present in the space?
Krasimira Butseva We are part of the work as it was formed from our personal understanding, and the objects and stories part of it are chosen by us. My voice, as well as that of Lilia Topouzova, is heard from time to time in the interviews alongside one of the survivors themselves. At the same time, we also have tried to be mostly on the side, withdrawn, taking on the role of the artists – art is our vehicle for narrating this difficult history. Even if the spaces look like someone’s homes they are not ethnographic reenactments, but artistic fabrications inspired by our research and visits to the homes of those who were interned in camps. However, we are also citizens – we want to activate a space for conversation that will continue to exist after the shows are over.
Julian Chehirian In a state of heightened vigilance. Here I can talk about the technical side of the installation, which is another side of being present. Part of the installation is planned to be chaotic and unrepeatable—with random algorithmic delays (this is in the kitchen). But the living room and bedroom are driven by a sensitive and nearly impossible technological choreography driven by data-serialization programming language and a set of radio and wifi-controlled electrical outlets. It can feel like a self-imposed psychosis to supervise this for issues—we stand there listening to disembodied voices (from the recordings), and can panic when we don’t hear them when we think we should be hearing them. Being present in the space when there are visitors can make me overly concerned about things happening as we’ve intended them to happen. Sometimes, when a large group of visitors comes and causes interference, the installation goes off the rails. Next time we re-stage this, I think we’ll lean more into the infinite randomness of audio and video arrangements.
What do you observe in the audience, how do visitors perceive the installation?
Krasimira Butseva We are deeply intrigued by the comments that have reached us so far. The visitors are of different ages, and they stop to listen, ask and talk with us. There are many young people who have come to our studio – a few by chance, and most of them through our education program running as part of the exhibition. Some very meaningful conversations have taken place, some of them about lesser-known facts – for example, some of the students have asked about the women's camps and about the trauma and suffering of women. Often people stop by to share their personal family stories – lived or inherited. I would share a specific situation that made an impression on me. One day, there was somebody who was visiting the show and was telling me about their research and visits to Belene; before leaving the studio he looked around and said that there would be a memory, and it would be preserved. It has been so gratifying, to hear multiple times such thoughts, how the work also brings up hope.
How important is it for learners (schoolchildren, students, etc.) to be familiar with the exhibition and its messages?
Krassimira Butseva It is very important for us to make sure our work exists beyond the "echo chamber". We have tried to make sure that our visitors are not only fellow artists, curators or historians, but that there are also people who would discover this exhibition in other ways not only by being a part of these communities. This is why we have been running an educational programme since the beginning of the exhibition, and we have been in contact with schools and universities in Sofia, Plovdiv, and Lovech. So far we have met with over 100 school and university students, and by the end of the month, the exhibition will have been visited by another 150 students. Their attention and questions are what activate the exhibition for me. Not only are they listeners to this story, but they become carriers of the memory.
Julian Chehirian Some visitors who have their own lived experiences from the socialist period can sometimes come to confirm what they already feel. Many others will hear of the exhibition and might not come because they already know where they stand. There might be a hesitation to continue debates that have been a part of their lives since the transition. However, students are at a point of their own emergence, and they stand at a generational temporal distance where an encounter with historical polyphony can have a powerful effect. I find this to be the most meaningful audience for this exhibition—those who do not have direct, lived experience from the socialist period. We are noticing a tremendous amount of curiosity and interest among high school and university students. They grew up with stories from their parents and grandparents, and so our intervention has something to build upon. Yet, in listening to the testimonies of people who came from both similar and different economic and political backgrounds from their own, there is an opportunity to paint a broader picture of the diversity and contradictions of experiences of the past.
Did you intend to heal trauma through art, thinking of the exhibition as a means of "community healing practice"?
Krasimira Butseva I am personally very interested in community healing practices, and for instance have written about such occurrences in the context of Bulgaria in my recent article "Vernacular Memorial Museums: Memory, Trauma, and Healing in Post-communist Bulgaria" which was published in the Museums & Social Issues Journal. In the piece, I suggest the idea of a vernacular memorial museum. Some of them are actually part of the living spaces of people. They are often self-initiated, self-funded, and managed beyond the hierarchies and structures of a memorial museum. In these spaces, I noticed that there could also be a kind of healing, both for the initiator (usually a survivor of political violence), who gathers testimonies of his and others and thus creates a place of memory and reconciliation, and for the individuals who visit these places. The difficult and unspoken past requires conversations, and recontextualization, not just during our month-long exhibition, but generally, over an extended period of time – by artists, historians, institutions, and the state.
Julian Chehirian I’ve been inspired by Bisbee '17, a film by Robert Greene in which the residents of Bisbee, Arizona re-enact the traumatic events of a 1917 deportation that split the town apart. The film, to my continuing disbelief, manages not just to document but also to mobilize a process of collective reckoning and healing by accessing the embodied and affective dimensions of the way in which history lives in us, whether we narrativize it or not. This goal is loftier than anything I would ever set out to try to do. I don’t think that the methods we have chosen are bringing together the descendants of victims and perpetrators for difficult, transformative dialogues, but what they are doing is stirring the foggy, swamp-like soup of our collective inheritance. Subtle elements from the depths are rising. That begins when someone spends time sitting in the installations and listening. When they are personally touched by the intimacy and rawness of the conversations. I think that this process continues, however, only if it provokes our audience to share their experiences with others, whether in a casual or formal way.
Are you helping to create a shared memory, something that is completely missing here due to the total fragmentation of society and the lack of democratic structures and media?
Julian Chehirian There are two contrasting modes of invoking history that I notice in our context here. On the one hand, there is the contestation of the past – the recent past as a canvas on which the narratives are drawn and defined in order to comprehend it. Most often this unfolds as a disputation. It sometimes draws on personal experience (“I know how it was back then – I was alive; you were not”), but most often it essentially instrumentalizes the past as a means of explaining why things are the way they are today, and who bears responsibility for the status quo. This is the most common way in which I hear history showing up in conversations. There is another way, however, and it looks different. It does not necessarily exclude conflict or contestation, but its foundation is not disputational—rather, its foundation is listening, curiosity, and holding space for others to share. The practice of listening allows for the subjective to inform the objective, and the objective to inform the subjective. In fact, the distinction between the two blurs. “Collective” memory will always exhibit the fault lines of disagreement. In fact, as Diana Ivanova notes in her reflection on our work, Maurice Halbwachs wrote that “society tends to exclude from its memory anything that might divide individuals from one another”. Forgetting, then, might be as much a part (if not more) of the constitution of a collective as is remembering. Maintaining silence as means of protection – not just in an intra-psychic sense, but as a means of collective synchronization. It would be amazing if our work has provoked some people to process the content of that silence into something that can be shared, that can become a part of civic debates, and that can become an articulable part of our collective historical inheritance.
There are still no institutions in Bulgaria that take care of memory in an appropriate way. Do you want to compensate for that in some way? Once you've picked up the theme, are you thinking of a sequel?
Krasimira Butseva We have been so busy working on this project in the last months that it was only a few days after the opening that it accidentally occurred to us that we might have created something that resembles a memorial museum. As an example, the District Six Museum in Cape Town is very interesting for me in the context of institutions like this, perhaps because it is a museum that was founded by the community itself, and which lacks the museum hierarchy and bureaucracy, elitism or backroom goals. As a contrasting example, I would mention the House of Terror Museum in Hungary, which opened in 2002 during Viktor Orbán's electoral campaign, funded through the state and used as a political tool. The District Six Museum is a memorial museum set up by the community, which invites visitors to choose the objects that go into the museum’s collection and curate them. It is a museum that has the potential to become a place for healing, rethinking, and gathering lost and destroyed history.
I think it would be fantastic if the exhibition could find a permanent home; a place where it could live and be visited, or be part of a memorial museum. Unfortunately, there is no memorial museum in Bulgaria, no memorial monument, and no specific state position of this particular past. So, our experience, and that of other fellow artists, historians, art historians, and curators, is very individual, sporadic, and self-initiated. We hope that with this exhibition we can trigger an interest to talk and listen to narratives of the recent past and to grow beyond us and our years of work, and to be also a topic explored by others. We also think that the completion of this project, which has lasted eight years, is a kind of natural ending of this body of work or rather this specific topic.
Julian Chehirian I’ve been surprised by how many people feel an urgency for this exhibition not to close—not to leave this building. It is humbling. It is as if when silence is ruptured, we can see and feel its contours more clearly. The beauty of a temporary intervention like ours is that it can hit with force and precision. Could a permanent version of this installation signal urgency in the same way? Perhaps it would fulfill a different set of commitments, such as the longer-term care for precarious memory across new groups and generations of viewers. The funding and political will that this would require to add new dimensions and vulnerabilities that we haven’t had to protect the work from. Will it be instrumentalized? Will it be tokenized by political parties looking to triangulate new demographics? I recognize that the politics of memory are complicated. As someone who was not born or raised in Bulgaria, I don’t think that it is my place to make these decisions. I would be happy to support people who wish to build on the efforts of others and ourselves.