Geert Lovink on Tue, 29 Jul 1997 12:15:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with luchezar boyadjiev

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 Koeln and Berlin, and the anual 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. An 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
whatshowever. It supported 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
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 independance. It will be
put under the control of the International Monetairy 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 considirable 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, independant
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 do 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 well educated programmers,
which 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 youngsters 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 the current influence of computers and new media on the arts and

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 compensations. For
example, in Bulgaria there is no museum of contemporary art, for the good
or the bad. One could make 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?

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. Unfortunetely that also implies
to the word socialismm 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-galery 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 independant.
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 Prikov and the Medical
Hermenetics. 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 contemporary art in Bulgaria, like the currency board. It would be
easy to fill up an exhibition hall. Than 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)
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