THE POTENTIALS OF PUBLIC ART (PART 2) – STATEMENTS BY ARTISTS, CURATORS AND ACTIVISTS

In the second part of the material about the Week of Contemporary Art in Plovdiv, we talk with artists who participated in the Week, and whose works were censored or vandalized, as well as with organizers, curators and activists about what it is to make art in public space in Bulgaria. From the perspective of time and almost two months after the event came to an end, we asked them to share their thoughts and reactions, but also the potential they see in the situation. With this material that includes statements of Sevdalina Kochevska, Venelin Shurelov, Dessislava Terzieva, Emil Mirazchiev, Mihaela Dobreva, Veronika Tzekova, Yanina Taneva, Borjana Ventzislavova, and Luchezar Boyadjiev, we try to fill in the gap of the missing public discourse in our professional community and we are driven by the hope to start one.


Read the first part, a conversation with Galina Dimitrova, curator of Week of Contemporary Art 2022 here.



Sevdalina Kochevska / artist

The Wall taught me many things – before the appearance of this installation, for example, I did not know that art can provoke purely political hatred. And that it could be a reason for heated discussions with all kinds of participants, including people who would otherwise never have come into contact with contemporary art. The Wall was provoked by the first photos of the barricades after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. I was shocked that they were lining up sacks to save lives. We have only seen such things during floods or other natural disasters. Now, instead of tearing down walls, we are building new ones. The title of the Week of Contemporary Art 2022 is The Weight of Being, and in response I decided to do a barricade. When I saw the half-demolished wall of the Roman Stadium, I knew this would be the location for my work. I chose silver sacks as a symbol of the Iron Curtain, which is coming down again because of the war in Ukraine. As soon as we piled the 400 silver sacks on the Roman Stadium Sq., social media literally boiled over, as a journalist friend of mine put it. The media was not late in covering the work and awakened interest in it. We put up signs with curatorial texts to direct viewers. There were all sorts of reactions – most people, though unprepared, approved its message, but there were also furious attacks. The negative reactions and the premature disassembly of The Wall did not spoil my enjoyment of a job well done. The result was a large-scale and "brilliant" installation in the right place. The Wall lived a short but very dynamic life. By the way, I hope that the life of the barricades in Ukraine will be short as well.


The Wall, Sevdalina Kochevska © Art Today Association, 2022
The Wall, Sevdalina Kochevska © Art Today Association, 2022

Venelin Shurelov / artist and stage designer

The idea of my project titled Random Theatre, was to offer the audience a collective observation of the banal surroundings and to look for some poetics of the image in the spontaneous actions on the street. I wanted to create in the casual passers-by the feeling of being important, special, significant. I create an object with a very simple architecture, inside of which is a detailed model of a theatre. The bottom of the stage is cut out, as is the wall behind the auditorium, and so everyone and everything that appears on both sides becomes either part of the stage event or an observer of it. I placed my work directly opposite the entrance to the Plovdiv Drama Theatre and introduced it to passers-by as the theatre's newest chamber stage. The micro “branch” immediately found an audience and performers. The idea and realization were specific and direct enough, and that usually leads to a good connection with people and their reactions give meaning to the work.

One of the first reactions I witnessed while still installing the object was a brief conversation between father and son. The child asked what it was, and the father replied short and clear: “garbage”. That night the work was vandalized and literally turned into a trash can. I'm sorry to say, but the implications of such an attitude deeply bore me. Manifestations of indifference and denial are far from news. It neither motivates me nor concerns me, nor does it have any meaning. Whether on the street, in the gallery or on the theatre stage, I am genuinely excited by the creation of non-normative images and ideas. The news is that there is an audience for that too.

Some of my first solo projects involved working in urban environments, in public space. Street art does not rest on institutionalization, it resists the established zones and subjects that drive artistic events. It is one of the most primal and spontaneous possible manifestations of art making. Street actions are a rare opportunity to create non-hierarchical systems of social relations and are always focused on the present. I strive to create vital systems that give the viewer/observer/user the feeling of being in a situation. A series of circumstances build up a kind of micro-world, without closing in its outlines, but on the contrary, striving for a connection with the environment and its inhabitants.


Random Theatre, Venelin Shurelov © Art Today Association, 2022
Random Theatre, Venelin Shurelov © Photo: Venelin Shurelov. Art Today Association, 2022

Dessislava Terzieva / artist

When I was informed that my work had been vandalized, I was curious about: Is it an act of hooliganism for the sake of mischief? Or, did the work itself provoke that sort of reaction? The work displayed was heavy, loaded. It was not made to be overlooked. The intention was to grab the attention of the passers-by, to have them stop, consider, and react – whether that be through personal thought or spoken conversation. It is not every day that works get vandalized. I thought about historical references of similar events and landed on David Hammon's work How Ya Like Me Now? (1989). It was a public piece in which he painted the Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson white skinned and blue eyed, with a spray painted "How Ya Like Me Now?" on his chest – a powerful, thought provoking pro-black work that was vandalized by a group of black men who understood it as being racist.


As for myself, I wonder: was it a misunderstanding? Did the passer-by take offence to my messaging? I guess I have no way of finding out exactly but I'd assume that is the case. Perhaps they believed the work to be crude. Unsettling. Perhaps they believed it to be "pro" something that they are "anti" to, or the other way around. This is part of the gamble with works in public, urban environments. I can control the work I produce, to a certain extent, but once it is released into the world, it is free. The work stands on its own in direct relationship with the world. People have the ability to interact without the same inhibitions they do when inside an institution. It is their prerogative. And when they do, then a conversation occurs. In a way – wasn't that the point to begin with?


Subjective Reality, Dessislava Terzieva © Art Today Association, 2022

Emil Mirazchiev / chairman of Art Today Association and organiser of the Week of Contemporary Art

Ever since the Week of Contemporary Art went out into the public space, it has become more visible and provocative. Not only this year, but also last year there was a scandal about an installation by Sevdalina Kochevska – it included galvanized buckets positioned within the archaeological monument. For me this is important, when I was artistic director of Plovdiv 2019 I had the urge for archaeology to enter the debate and be "revived" through live interventions. In fact, this has also been embraced by the Municipality, which is currently organising a residency programme with a focus on heritage “activation”. The most important thing about the Week is that it is increasingly succeeding in introducing a wide audience to approaches of the contemporary art – something that is lacking in art education, and in society in general. And this art has a political message, as does this year's intervention by Sevdalina. I think it is a visually well-done work, but the connection to Ukraine is starting to generate different reactions. However, it strikes me that this year the reactions of the politicians have become a bit more cautious and not so direct. The removal was apparently at the behest of the mayor of Plovdiv. This has already happened with one of our works a few years ago when there was a visit by the Portuguese ambassador. Sometimes the reason is pure human stupidity, other times power mechanisms intervene. However, it surprises me when colleagues react harshly; this time there were some. But we have to walk this way, and we, as an independent organisation, are working in this direction. Any reaction is welcome, because clearly something is happening, is working, is provoking. We are preparing the ground, but in the end institutions like the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education have to step in – our hope is that there are also living people who work there and they are the ones who make the decisions and see that something important is happening. It's not that there isn't, there is contemporary art, and the society will increasingly have the necessity to look at it.


Mihaela Dobreva / stage designer

The removal of a pre-negotiated and approved work of art, without discussion, without the right of objection, and without reasonable cause, is an unacceptable gesture. I wonder why the official response is all but missing. It is in our local cultural context that such reactions are historically traditional and leave us with the well-known bad taste in our mouth. For this reason, we should be particularly sensitive and have developed mechanisms for correcting and opposing the imposition of censorship. Do we have to start from scratch every time?


Veronika Tzekova / artist

грАД (a play on words in Bulgarian – град/grad means city; ад/ad means hell – ed.) is a large-scale typographic installation that uses the visual perception of the written text. It is a two-word script telling the stories of multiple cities and countless human lives. It seems as if, in an imaginary past, грАД was conceived and installed as a massive and imposing monument of the city. The city as a dream and an object of desire, as a powerful center of attraction. Nowadays, the viewer witnesses the result of how time, natural forces, and perhaps most of all, the human factor have taken away from the city's impressiveness and charm, and turned it into inferno. The "Г" and the "Р" have exchanged their proud monumental vertical position for a horizontal one. They have become a kind of ruin, resting in the dust of the street. грАД visualizes the duality of the city – a continuous cycle and dynamic between the city as an object and source of desire/s as well as the weight of being in city/hell reality and everyday life.


During its approximately 10-day stay in the centre of Plovdiv, грАД took on a life of its own and experienced plenty of contacts, interventions and metamorphoses. Plovdiv citizens daily changed the positions of the letters ‘Г’ and ‘Р’, spelling ‘ГРАД’ (city in Bulgarian – ed.), ‘ГАД’ (skunk in Bulgarian – ed.) and back to the starting position грАД. Intense connection... I even read a comment under a photo of the temporary position ‘ГАД’ that it referred to the monument of Alyosha, which was visible in the distance behind грАД. I hadn't thought of that. Apparently, the citizens of Plovdiv and the грАД developed a relationship that did not need me as an author to navigate it. To me, this means that I did my job as an artist. Working with and in public space intrigues me exactly because of the encounter with the random, unprepared audience and its reactions. For me, very often these interactions, which are also essentially commentaries, broaden the range of subjects that an artwork addresses.


грАД, Veronika Tzekova © Art Today Association, 2022 © Art Today Association, 2022
грАД, Veronika Tzekova © Art Today Association, 2022

Yanina Taneva / activist

The Week of Contemporary Art is a well-established institution on the artistic scene, and in a year when war has broken out in Europe and the world is hurtling headlong towards the heights of the inhumane, the only possible humane gesture at such a forum could be to reflect this reality – in an emotional and emphatic way, as a clear counterpoint to radicalisation and ideologies that once again obliterate the 'human measure'. I find Galina Dimitrova's curatorial work to be just such a subtle and decisive statement. She had done what time obliges an independent curator in September 2022 to do – to provoke a reaction by placing the works outside the white cube, where confrontation and conflicts of interpretation are to be expected.


And if the public reaction was only proof that Galina and the artists are in the zeitgeist historically and morally, the absence of consolidation in the visual arts sector with a common position on what happened, declaring support for their colleagues, proved that this is unfortunately the most partisan, unconsolidated of the "guilds" in the cultural sector, amputated by solidarity. The lack of understanding that defending the exhibition today, is protecting the legitimacy of the whole "guild" to build the tomorrow, is a hideous emanation of conformity, where we should have found "avant-garde". I find reasons for this in the fact that the sector is highly politically dependent and the names that do not belong to one of our known "camps" are few. I commend Galina for her courage and strength to persevere and be true to herself against all odds and without the support of her colleagues in this tsunami of events.


If You Want It, Borjana Ventzislavova © Art Today Association, 2022
If You Want It, Borjana Ventzislavova © Art Today Association, 2022

Borjana Ventzislavova / artist

I participated in the Week with the film We The Nature, screened as part of a video program in public space, and with a series of posters If You Want It that were put up around the city of Plovdiv. Both works deal with the climate crisis and address concrete practical goals related to the creation of laws to protect nature from our actions, and therefore from ourselves. In this sense, both works have an activist approach. Whether the works have been understood by the public and what the reactions have been are questions I cannot answer, as I have no observation or information on this matter. These questions are usually, especially when it comes to works in public space, difficult to answer, unless there is a public discussion or some scandalous and sensational situation takes place, which incidentally occurred during the opening for some of the works.


If You Want It is made entirely for the urban environment. The format is poster, a medium used in the public space to convey a certain message. This series is inspired by a work by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in which in the late 1960s they wrote, "The war is over! If you wish." I'm taking that message and turning it around to the current war we're waging with nature and not stopping its destruction. The project was first realised for an exhibition at Unicredit Studio Sofia, where, in addition to being installed for the passers-by in the public space, it was also intended to draw the attention of the relevant institution, in this case a bank – what they could do to tackle the problems. In Plovdiv, of course, by installing the works in the urban environment, not only a highly specialised audience is reached, who are probably better acquainted and have some relation to ecocide and climate problems, but certain questions are also posed to the common people, hoping that they will become interested and reflect on the relevant issues. On the poster series there is also a web address where one can find out more and take real steps, sign a petition, read how one can trigger and accelerate action also at the local level, in one's own country. In that sense, when art leaves the classical gallery space, it can reach a much larger circle of people and contribute to change, and that has always been the biggest challenge for me.


Luchezar Boyadjiev / artist

I got lucky in Plovdiv in the autumn of 2022... Both my works were new and hanging so high on the facades of the Central Post Office and the Old Bath that they were inaccessible to direct, secondary intervention in the public space by the most important "agent" active in it - the citizenry. While we were installing the "spider hanging in awkward silence" on Central Post Office, I observed the reactions of passers-by - they were non-aggressive and discreetly curious. Then I thought that in this period of installation, which in the case of "The Wall" and other works in Galia Dimitrova-Dimova's project was both far longer and far more difficult than in my case, we - the artists, curators, organizers, technical and PR teams of the project - were actually doing something far more important than just the temporary intervention, the installation of a kind of "assembly" between the new element and the environment that was familiar to people. At the vernissage of an exhibition in a gallery space, the doors open at the appointed hour, the public rushes in, and hop - the whole of the exhibition is presented before their eyes in its finished form, ready for use. For projects in the urban environment, this is a process visible to the citizenry and the authorities; it is in fact a process of activating the space, of making it public. This period of time in which preparation, documentation and permissions, installation, presence in the environment, public reactions of citizens/media/authority, and finally dismantling, etc. take place is completely different from the usual exhibition activity, which somehow duplicates the "solitude" of the artist in the studio... In projects in public space, the most important thing is the sense of publicness. Then both the positive and the negative aspects of the "integral" called the city and the life of the whole human community in it are manifested.


It is neither possible nor necessary in such projects to anticipate everything so that the likelihood of scandal is reduced to zero. On the other hand, often the intention to cause a scandal with an art project does not lead to one. There are too many factors at play, and only an open, tolerant environment shared by all "agents" in the public can ensure that art projects are taken as occasions for conversation, not hatred, displays of frustrated identities, etc., and least of all censorship. If a curator (or host gallery) and an artist don't agree on what kind of project, what kind of work to exhibit then it's an internal art squabble. There is censorship only when power is involved - as an institution, as individuals, as sanction, and the action of prematurely dismantling work that (in the case of Sevda's "The Wall") has clearly raised fears in the authorities. The strange thing is that the very "agent" in the whole of publicity that should be most in tune with the moods of the citizenry (because it is running in elections) - the government - is often the most unprepared both for activating the public space of artists and works, and for defending its decisions to have such art events in the city at all, in front of the same citizenry - no matter what, and at least until the end of the already short Contemporary Art Week in Plovdiv. It seems that in Sofia there is more accumulated will and power, and practice, and mechanics to have sustainability of the process of activating the public through art. But even here this does not mean a seamless coexistence... In any case, experience is accumulated. Next time hopefully there will be no war, but who knows - after the local elections we may cancel the ancient history and clutter up what has already been excavated so that it does not tease us with its grandeur...