How to turn your liability into an asset Contemporary art and the political and economic crisis in Bulgaria
An Interview with Luchezar Boyadjiev
By Geert Lovink
Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel, June 20, 1997
Luchezar Boyadjiev (Sofia, 1957) is working currently as an artist. His background is studies in art history and theory, pursued both in Bulgaria and the United States. Recently he had shows at the 4th Istanbul Biennial, Chicago (Beyond Belief in the Museum of Contemporary Art), Liverpool (at LEAF 97), in Köln and Berlin, and the annual exhibition of the Soros Foundation in Plovdiv.
Geert Lovink: Could you explain us the current situation in Bulgaria from your point of view? For a long time, the Bulgarian communists have stayed in power, after having changed their faces. Recently, a lot has happened in South-East Europe... the demonstrations in Serbia, the first non-communist government in Romania, anarchy in Albania... What is the reason of the apparently unique position of Bulgaria?
Luchezar Boyadjiev: The more time passes after 1989, the more differences there are between each country in Eastern Europe. In the past, Bulgaria had a privileged position, in terms of being one of the closest allies of the Soviet Union. The country enjoyed an almost free supply of raw materials, crude oil, electricity. A utopian situation, having no worry about how to produce and make a living for its citizens. Now, it looks as if time has stopped after 1989. We realized this only recently.
On the surface, a democratic reform took place. A free-market economy was introduced, of which I am not a fan, but which seemed to be the only way out of the deadlock. As it turned out, there is no capitalism, so consequently, there is no opposition to capitalism. This applies also to the social situation. A redistribution of the old money of the regime is now taking place among its loyal followers who are now top bankers or mafia leaders. This is not capitalism, it is Monte-Carlo money. Easy come, easy go, no re-investments. In the 1994-1996 period there was a full-fledged socialist government in power which had no agenda whatsoever. It suppor-ted the infrastructure of the organized crime. At the end of 1996 there was a severe banking crisis. This government was sticking to the state owned property, lending money to non-productive sectors in order to hold down the social unrest. The result was hyper-inflation, each day new rates were issued, five or ten times higher than the day before, a situation other countries had been through five or six years ago. This situation resulted in a lot of street unrest in January and February, which started with people breaking into the parliament.
GL: It has been said that the protests in Sofia were inspired by those in Belgrade. Through the television images one got the impression of a large, diverse and creative movement.
LB: The situation in Belgrade was totally different because in Serbia there were legitimate elections and the results were simply not recognized by the governing power. In Bulgaria there were no elections. People went out on the streets simply because they could not take it any longer. Given the quality of life, if I can permit this expression, you can either fuck or eat. You can not at the same time buy condoms and meat.
In those weeks there was a great feeling of unity on the streets. It turned out that there was a new generation of students. Unlike the 89 generation, the new students are not leaving the country. They want to stay, work and have a decent life. They are fully aware that no matter who comes to power, they will be corrupt. Like Jenny Holzer's slogan: 'Abuse of power comes as no surprise'. These students will go on strike again. As of July 1st Bulgaria will have lost its independence. It will be put under the control of the International Monetary Fund. We are going to have a currency board and the Leva will be tied to the German mark. It is going to be hard. But ironically, it is a way of having a tangible feeling that somehow there is a relation to the world. All East European countries want to become part of NATO or the European Community, or of both. No one is inviting Bulgaria, yet we are still discussing the possibility to join in. There is this utopian feeling that all things will change overnight and everything will be allright. So there are illogical emotions towards Western Europe and towards the rudimentary remains from the distant past, like the former monarch, who showed up in Sofia a year ago, with huge masses on the street, simply crying on the streets. But he never returned clever guy.
GL: The media situation in Bulgaria seems to be mixed: lots of radio stations, software piracy, loosening control of the State over television, some Soros publishing activities, combined with a considerable amount of chaos. Is this correct?
LB: Absolutely. After 89 the student TV-programme Kuckkuck made a perfect simulation of a news announcement concerning a nuclear acident on the Danube river. It was so convinving that people behaved just like after Tchernobyl. This programme was immediately stopped. The state channels became more and more commercialized. The few private channels are also not of much help either. The only usefull media are some private, independent radio stations.
Recently, there was a report in Nettime about software piracy in Bulgaria. Of all the Comecon-countries (the former Sovjet equivalent of the EC), Bulgaria was allocated the task to develop computers. Funny enough a factory for hardware was built in the village of our former dictator, just to show how progressive he was. The computers they produced were not of high quality. But there were a lot of well educated programmers, who were not allowed to work on their own programs. Industrial espionage was heavily encouraged and the Bulgarian spies were given the task to get hold of software. That led to programmers not working on their own programs but breaking into other people's programs. As a sort of revenge they created a lot of computer viruses. Some of those are still around. That tradition continues: a group of young-sters in the Black Sea city of Varna was arrested recently. They managed to steal the codes from credit cards of tourists. They used these cards to order computer parts through the internet in the United States. They were so confident that they gave their own home addresses for the parts to be delivered. Till somebody got a Christmas card from a company he did not know at all, thanking its best customers. That's how it was traced back.
GL: What is the current influence of computers and new media on the arts and culture?
LB: It is growing. Recently, three media labs opened in Sofia. In the past it was stagnating. Now this is, again, a substitute for a physical reality. When you have a deficiency of the physical reality, you have some hopes that in the virtual reality you may find some compen-sations. For example, in Bulgaria there is no museum of contemporary art, for the good or the bad. One could probably make a virtual museum and appropriate some existing space, make a CD-ROM, a website somewhere. Almost like a computer game. Video is also compensating for the lack of possibilities. It is a symptom of crisis and of a utopian hope.
GL: Now that the production is almost at ground zero and the country is bankrupt, virtuality seems the only solution. Is this what you are saying? And what is the role of the artist in all this?
LB: Everything that could be sold is being sold and this is the only way to make fresh cash, as they say. Bulgarians have this survival capability, which is very high. The absurdity is taking place on many levels, not only in the media, the economy or the social situation. Concerning art, in the past in Bulgaria there was no dissident movement. The regime found flexible ways of accomodating deviations in the sphere of art. Non-conventional art started in the mid-eighties. It was not underground by any definition. You cannot really say that it is backward. In any case, there are not more than 25 to 30 people working in the field of contemporary art. Then comes in the Soros Foundation and its Centers for Contemporary Art. When the Center in Sofia was about to be opened, in early 1994, the Soros Foundation itself had changed. George Soros had given more authority to the local branches. The Sofia Center is an outcome of this bigger power of the local branch. It was established by the local office, not by the international network, Suzy Meszoly and the headquarters in New York. The good thing is that it has more programs, related to theatre, music, literature, not only visual arts. The bad thing is that it was quite provincial. It took them four years to make more relevant exibitions. Bulgarian art is always first and foremost content-oriented art. It does not really matter what the medium is. The message is one of absurdity. How to turn a liability into an asset. The best Bulgarian art deals with this aspect. A liability in terms of inferiority, identity or provincial complexes, is turned into a bombastic statement or one sort or another.
GL: How did the artists you know responded to the current economic and political crisis?
LB: They responded in a very direct way. For about two months, we had a special meeting at 4 p.m. each day, in front of parliament. Artists would meet and have a lot of fresh air, jump up and down and demonstrate. We used cans full of coins to produce a lot of noise. The big change compared to 89 is that people, artists including, can change things. After these seven years of having simulated reforms, without actual change, people all of the sudden became dissidents. They lost all their feelings of nostalgia for the security of the past. Unfortunately that also implies the word socialism which is compromised in many ways. A new party was founded in the winter and is already called in the parliament 'the Euroleft'. It brings together former socialists, liberals and intellectuals. It is a significant sign that very soon there will be the possibility to name things with the proper name. Soon it will be possible to work on alternatives and create progressive, radical movements, without being immediately branded a communist.
GL: Will the World Bank also take over the branch of contemporary art? You have been stating this in the catalogue 'Menschenbilder Photo und Videokunst aus Bulgarien', an exhibition organized by the IFA-gallery in Berlin, held in february-march 1997.
LB: Traditionally, Bulgaria has been in and out of its own history, as well as in and out of European History, as if it was a supermarket. The country has always been performing better when it was not independent. Whenever it was part of a larger empire, be that the Byzantine , the Ottoman, or the Sovjet Empire, or an ally to Germany in two World Wars and now (it has tied itself up to) the German mark... My only suspicion is that we have always tended to side with the losers. I don't mean to offend the Germans, but I would hate to see this happen again.
If you are familiar with the Moscow conceptional circle of the late eighties and early nineties, approximately over a hunderd people... The only people that remained as a presence in contemporary art in the West are Kabakov and to a certain extend Dimitri Prigov and the Medical Hermeneutics. There is a lot of interest and the potential for reciprocal exchange. The reason is that there is no infrastructure in Russia. The same holds true in Bulgaria. There is interest for not more than two artists at a time. If it is ever there it is stable because it is based on individual artists. We certainly cannot sustain reciprocal exchange. We do not have any infrastructure to speak of. Outside the Soros Center there is hardly any sponsorship for art. The annual budget of the Soros Center is probably ten times larger than that of the Ministry of Culture. So I developed the idea to have an international curatorial board, to control contem-porary art in Bulgaria, like the currency board. It would be easy to fill up an exhibition hall. Then you start sending information, right now the most important aspect: exchange of information. Not necessarily for promotional purposes. Just to keep the communication lines open. Every visitor coming to Bulgaria is influencing the situation there, in a good and in a bad sense. People tend to be disoriented afterwards. To avoid this problem, we could have an international board. Would you like to join?
(edited by Patrice Riemens)