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<nettime> Interview with Luchezar Boyadijev (Sofia) - part II
Geert Lovink on Thu, 24 Sep 1998 07:43:36 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Interview with Luchezar Boyadijev (Sofia) - part II


Yes, we are worth exploiting!
Interview with Luchezar Boyadijev (Sofia)
By Geert Lovink
Recorded in the Revolting Temporary Media Lab, Manchester/UK
September 1, 1998

GL: Could we speak of a Sofia School of Contemporary Art? The title of the
recent exhibition in Munich, 'Bulgariaavantgarde', suggests this, so do
the texts and the group photo in the catalogue. It seems that this group,
this generation presents a coherent picture.

LB: It is a group of people that has been working in a parallel way. It
consists of people from different generations - artists, curators, art
critics and people who are into cultural theory/studies. The activities of
this group are centred around the 'Institute of Contemporary Art', a small
NGO that did not have an office for a long time, only a rotating computer.
Me and Nedko Solakov have being doing contemporary art for the last 7 or 8
years. And then there is this group of younger people who started
experimenting with video and recently computer.
	'Bulgariaavantgarde, Contending Forces II' has been held at the
Kuenstlerwerkstatt Lothringerstrasse in Munich in May 1998. The first
event, three years earlier, organised by Haralampi G. Oroschakoff, dealt
with the Moscow conceptual school, all the way from Kabakov, Komar and
Melamid till Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener. As a title
'Bulgariaavantgarde', on the other hand, is a compromise. I do not
particularly like the term, but it is just a label in order to sell the
project to the authorities. We did not want to present any distinct,
oppressive identity of ours. We wanted to make clear that we are
transparent, open-minded, adaptive to circumstances, ready to enter a
dialogue, without having to impose on anybody our complaints and miseries.

It turned out to be a space full of light, transparency and air. The most
significant, emblematic work was an installation by Pravdoliub Ivanov,
consisting of 25 hot-plates on the floor. On each plate there would be a
pot of different colour and size. Each morning these pots would be filled
up with water. Within an hour, the water starts evaporating and a barely
visible steam goes up in the air. But since the hot plates are too small
and not strong enough, the water never actually reaches the point of
boiling. The title of this work is "Transformation Always Requires Time
and Energy." You see something is cooking but nothing is ever cooked. In
Germany this made sense. The unification has been going on without any
concrete results, like a never ending process. There was very little
obvious ideology in this show.

GL: This absence of ideology and identity goes well together with the
current stagnation and ongoing crisis in Bulgaria. Little development or
progress, trapped in the vacuum of permanent restructuring, budget cuts
and political malaise.

LB: Yes, people lack a perspective on having better lives, production
picking up etc. This is not happening. There is a slow process of
stabilisation. State finances seem to be alright. Renovation of streets in
the centre of Sofia is happening, in part financed by the European Union,
in order to beautify the city. But there is always a strange aspect
attached to these works. The story goes that the old cobble stones have
been sold to the city of Vienna, to give it a more authentic touch,
whereby Sofia is getting asphalt. There are signs that police activity is
on the rise. Some say, a police state is immanent. If people do not pay
attention, it might go that way. But so far it can be interpreted as an
attempt to crack down on organised crime. Most obvious is the
disappearance of pirated CDs. You do not see them being displayed on the
city squares anymore. There still are a lot of Russian pirate CDs on the
market. This crackdown was the result of a direct threat of sanctions from
the American President Bill Clinton to our president. In a matter of two
weeks, Bulgarian CDs just disappeared. Of course you can still get them,
but you have to know the right people.

This is the age of Multi Group, a financial corporation with offices not
only in Bulgaria. The official rumour says that the founding of this group
is going back to the money laundering operations with ex-communist party
assets at the end of the eighties. There are also other similar companies.
Now the government has to deal with these big companies which are
controlling big parts of the country on various levels. The previous
government of former communists, which is now called the Socialist Party,
tried to get back the laundered money of these groups, which are actually
Mafia. But they failed. The only thing the new government can do is engage
and work with these businessman making it possible for them to
re-legitimise their "capital" by bring it back into the country as
investments. Like in Russia, the issue now is how to make a historical
compromise in order to get the badly needed tax money, in exchange for
legitimation and power. So on the whole, we can see a process of
adaptation to the so-called European standards. This counts for taxing,
the banking system and the newly established border police. Next year we
will have a new set of IDs, driver's licences and passports which are made
according to EU-standards. There are no concrete plans to do a bit for the
membership of the EU and NATO, but they are doing everything possible to
make themselves more acceptable. We are all trying to prove to foreign
investors and our rich citizens that we are exploit-worthy Europeans.

GL: For many, the time of expectations has expired. The standards of
living for the majority has been continuously falling down. Will they
continue to wait patiently?

LB: Concerning rejuvenating, all hope is lost. The majority is now living
under the poverty line and fighting for their daily survival. It gets
especially tough for the retired people. On the other hand, there is now
an entirely new generation which grew up after 1989. They have taken for
granted that the situation is chaotic. The father or mother may not have a
job. These young people are very inventive. Unfortunately, the government
does not know how to support their initiatives. It can only control state
affairs. The currency board, which was installed on July 1, 1997 as an
agreement between the government and the IMF, has become part of our
lives. There are tons of jokes about the visits to Sofia of the
representative of the IMF for Bulgaria, miss Ann McGirck. These visits are
treated in the media as social events, and not as decisive moments.  
Nobody ever sees the actual results. You do not see any development. When
will the stabilisation ever come to an end?

GL: How is the Long Equilibrium being represented in the mass media?  
What is the response of television?  What do your students say about it?

LB: My students grew up in the last ten years. They either don't care or
have found their niche, working for some private company, doing graphic
design, or public relations. A lot of them are looking for ways to study
abroad and they might, or might not, come back. Recently, I visited the
small village where my father was born, with roots going back five
generations. Two hundred meters from the farm is a church from the early
19th Century with a graveyard. Here stands the tombstone for the eight
Bulgarian victims of the Titanic catastrophe. They actually came from that
village, a story which only became well known after the hype of the
Titanic film. They must have been males in their early twenties,
Gastarbeiter, making some money to send home. This story relates to this
national inferiority complex. Have we given anything to the world? Yes,
these victims are a form of giving. Our contribution right now lies in the
calamities. It is not as bad as in Albania. It is a specific kind of
misery.

GL: Here, in Manchester, you are participating in the Virtual Revolution
workshop. The revolution is all over, and your installation is also
referring to it. You are projecting an image of Lenin, speaking at a
gathering...

LB: It is a social realist painting from the thirties. I do not even know
the name of the colleague-artist. The image probably refers to one of the
rallies, just after the revolution, between November 1917 and the early
spring of 1918. In the dark gallery space I am capturing the faces of the
visitors, pasting them into the mass meeting, using the scheme of police
surveillance. There is a digital video camera at the entrance. The faces
of the visitors are captured in stop motion and then are processed with
two computers in Premier and Photoshop manually. Then they are sent to a
third machine which is running a program titled "Revolution.Exe" which I
have designed with a programmer in Sofia. This program is actually
replacing the faces of the Soviet workers with the faces of visitors to
the space and you can see the new faces appear on the wall.

It shows that you can be manipulated. I can steal your image and do
anything I want with it.  I do not want to show that you can time travel
and participate in some historical event, that idea has already been
overexposed. We have had decades of time to dream what it would be like if
I had been there. People really identified themselves with the October
revolution. Even I, as a young kid, had those nostalgic dreams of wanting
to be a revolutionary, getting involved in conspiracies, the underground.
These days the organisation of a revolution is much more complicated. And
there are so many different perceptions on these events. It is easier to
speak about terrorism. We can never be sure about the revolution. Who is
behind it?  Events are not limited to a particular place anymore. It is
old news and embarrassing for me to say but still many Western
intellectuals have such romantic ideas. They have missed 45 years of the
discourse, and the experience. It still has not been included.

GL: How about technological changes? What do you think of phrases such as
biotech or digital revolution?

LB: Social revolution is suspect, the digital changes aren't, yet. I still
have to experience it. Each one of us, in Bulgaria, have a computer of
some kind, a 486 with 16 KB of RAM. Recently we, at the ICA-Sofia, got a
Pentium and free Internet access. It is nothing exceptional. Everyone has
to wait for his or her turn to use the equipment. Yes, there is some
commercial activity, but we are not talking about that here. We are
waiting in line to take part in the digital revolution. From our
perspective, it is like a flood which has not yet arrived to Bulgaria.

GL: Each year, for one semester, you are giving classes at the New
Bulgarian University, at the department for media studies. What methods do
you use and what are you teaching your students?

LB: My course is titled Arts and Media Space. These are young kids,
producing for radio and TV stations and/or PR. I am teaching them how to
grab attention and what visual language could achieve that goal.
Techniques which have been developed by artists, and explain what already
has been done. I am aware that they are going to use this mostly for
commercial purposes. What I can do is to put it within a social context.
What I ask them to do is to design a public relations campaign for
something which has an entirely negative image. Take the Mafia. It shows
them that design is not an innocent practice. In the end, it has got to do
with ethics, not just about the image which is going to bring the profit.
These students do not read much, they are practitioners. The only thing I
can do is to provoke them. They are surprising me, if I am not precise
enough about the carriers of information. This they know, it is part of a
game they are playing.

Their point of reference is techno music. The Brazilian soap operas are
for their parents, they do not care about trash television. They will
shape the visual landscape, which is defined now by the interface of the
computer. Contemporary art, in this context, offers a strategy, a critical
context for their future concepts, which might be lost by now.  In the
last one and half years it has become obvious that the subject of culture
before 1989 was supposedly the worker, which was only a cover for the
nomenclatura. The working class was merely a projection screen. That was
the addressee of everything. The new subject of culture is the
quasi-liberal group of businessman and Mafia people. A person of 30 to 35
years old, who has made fast money through speculation, who is not
investing, owning a currency exchange bureau or insurance company. This is
being offered in the media as the model to follow.

Intellectuals are marginalised. They do not fit into this picture. One of
the concerns of intellectuals is, for instance, to not let the former
security state apparatus take over, to prevent them from legitimising
themselves back into normal life, by being sponsors, for instance,
supporting hospitals and museums. Members of this class has gone through a
process of money-laundering and have gained a monopoly in certain
businesses, lets say cable TV. Many intellectuals are now opposing the
government, because an alliance with this Mafia class is just immoral.

GL: Last year, you came up with the idea to install a culture board which
should take over the bankrupt Bulgarian culture and arts scene. The
proposal is there now. What could be the next step? How will people respond
to this radical idea to delegate the entire national heritage to a
transnational body? Is Bulgaria ready for the final sell out of all its
cultural assets?

LB: Well, this is a tough one. I think Bulgaria is definitely not ready
for the final sell-out. Actually, my perception is that everything else
Bulgarians might be readily willing to let go but when it comes down to
the so called "precious national heritage"... than they get overly
jealous. The point which is hard to grasp for politicians and ordinary
people in Bulgaria now is that the main BG cultural assets are not to be
found in the past. Of course, there is a lot there but it has been the
instrument for ideological manipulations and it has been neglected, in
terms of conservation, restoration and scientific research, for such a
long time that it is only functional now as a sentimental, nostalgic
remedy for diverting attention from the real hardships. People might not
give a duck's shit if a whole block of the actually functioning state
industry (let's say arms production - not that it is good on moral
grounds..., or chemical industry, or the touristic one...) is sold out to
private foreign or domestic businessmen under the table and practically
for peanuts, but they will kill you if you tell them that the country does
not really need and can't really afford to have and keep up another
medieval church or a manuscript, let alone a monastery or a Thracian tomb.

At the same time a good theatre company, a gallery space or a library
might be falling apart. Actors or musicians, etc. might be just starving -
no-one cares and I have the feeling that this has to do in part with the
old mythology of socialist times according to which the "cultural worker",
the creator of art and culture, the intellectual was a divine being (to be
bought for an ideological price, of course...). So now, people say - it's
just too bad, you had too good, too long... Ergo - sell industry but keep
the delusion of the "glorious" past.  That's why the proposal for a
Culture Board for Bulgaria, "modelled" after the Currency Board introduced
in the country by the IMF in 1997. The latter is supposed to control the
stabilisation of the country's finances, the former would take care of its
cultural stabilisation. The radical aspect is that BG-ians might feel it's
OK to let a foreign institution run the country's economy (actually, it's
better, they think, this way somebody else is responsible for us and if we
fail, there will be a "scape-goat"...), but culture - well, this touches
too deep, maybe because it's on the symbolic "front" the Culture Board is
most likely to operate. And "symbolic fronts", although bloodless, have
seen much more battles, fought for far longer times.

Bulgarians have just gotten out of the symbolic battle with the real
utopia and they don't need a new one...well, it's just too bad - they have
had it too good, for far too long with their cultural heritage, now is the
time for some tough waking ups.


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