The State of Video Art in Bulgaria

The delayed but hasty development of contemporary art in Bulgaria since 1985 eventually led to the point where artists “discovered” video… Since 1985, Bulgarian contemporary art has experienced phenomenal strides. Recovering from its delayed development, artists have hastily, but quite successfully engaged video. Artists have literally “discovered” video in the sense that they have brought fresh perspective to this technology, and brought complicated layers of critique, exploitation and manipulation for the technology to bear. In the early to mid 1990s, video equipment was used to document the numerous ritualistic performances that bombarded the art scene with excessive frequency in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That is to say, artists focused on video as a way to document artworks. Orlin Dvorianov, Daniela Nenova, and Ventzislav Zankov are the most significant examples of this trend. By 1994, artists began to include video in their installations, as well as a target material for computer manipulation of the “first degree.” Nedklo Solakov’s “Mr. Curator, please…” (1995) is illustrative of the possibilities for using video. Similarly, V. Zankov’s “Last Supper” (1995) made video central to the artwork. Contemporary art production, photography and digital media revealed endless permutations and genre cross-overs. Luchezar Boyadjiev’s “Up and Down. Back and Forth” (1995) provides such an example.

In the last 4-5 years there is hardly a serious contemporary Bulgarian artist, younger or older, female or male, radical or just plain poetic, who has not either used video extensively, or produced self-sufficient video-works. Spanning the generation gap, Bulgarian artists as disparate as “youngsters” Rssim Kristev, Kalin Serapionov, Houben Tscherkelov, Dimitrina Sevova, Krassimir Terziev, Mihail Dimov, Boryana Dragoeva, Ivo Moudov, Ivan Nikolov, Simeon Nikolov to the somewhat more established Dr. Galentin Gatev, Nadia Lyahova, and Albena Mishailova. The late development of video art culture is usually explained by the lack of access to equipment in the time prior to the 1989-1994 period. But another piece of the explanation is in the presence of a stable tradition of documentary film-making that never had a complimentary alternative or underground film-making practice. The benefits of video, its relative inexpensiveness and portability not withstanding, could not be successful in Bulgaria until an alternative media movement emerged. Thus, the massive artistic attraction to video and other new media came later, in 1989, coupled with alternative underground film practices.

After 1994, video and other new media had the added attraction of being a media suitable to produce easy-transport, easy-to-convert-in-meaning works, which would have the same visual appeal for all audiences, regardless of their geographical “background.” Having engendered audiences and film makers, the technology became part of a canon of contemporary Bulgarian art. Not to mention the obvious choice of video (and to an extent, photography) when an artist would “feel” like taking up the documentary approach in order to produce a record of her/his attitude(s) to post-1989 mixed-up identity and/or mixed-up reality issues. So, video art in Bulgaria is much more associated with the drive to overcome the cultural isolation (and diss-orientaion) after 1989-1994, to “catch up” with the big art world, rather than with some reminiscent reverie for pre-1989 artistic dissent. Which is good and bad… The good aspect is the freedom when handling the medium to visually express attitudes towards identity and social reality. The bad aspect is the lack of “obsession” with mastering the technical aspects of the tool one is using (at least until now and in most “artistic cases”). We would even claim that there is the following logic of production in Bulgarian video works: there are either long video works which require minimal editing (and consequently, minimal production costs in the computer montage studio, which is always-already a commercial one “by default”), or there are short video works which are extensively computer edited (lower production costs – anything that fits within 1 production day in the studio, = app. $50…). Naturally, the cases when there is/was institutional support for specific exhibition projects are outside this logic. For instance, the decisive stimulus which grounded video art production within the contemporary art discourse in Bulgaria was the 2nd Annual Show of the Soros Center for the Arts-Sofia held at the end of 1995 under the title of “Video/Hart”. (“hart” stands here for the shortened version of the Bulgarian word “hartia” which means “paper”, and not at all for the much nicer possibility to say “video/heart” which would have been poetic, as well as radical…). Offering a “bridge” to the newer media by combining it arbitrarily with one of the oldest media in art, paper, the show presented the artists with the opportunity to experiment, as well as to use better equipment, and last but not least, to work within the parallel program in several educational workshops. The already mentioned works by V. Zankov and L. Boyadjiev premiered in this show.

Thus, for the five years between 1995 and 2000, Bulgarian video art production (short or long works) has existed between the artistic initiative and idea, on one side, and the realistic “conditions of possibility” to produce the work, on the other. Usually, the dilemma is solved whenever there is a show invitationand a budget for production. For a younger artist this dilemma is a bit easier to solve within the framework of some workshops which have been available both on local and international levels. The workshop context usually offers technical advise and expertise, as well as equipment, not to mention the creative atmosphere such events tend to generate. The ongoing cycle of the international workshops “Crossing Over” and “Virtual Revolutions”, for instance, have been very instrumental in the development of video art in the country. Currently, the availability of equipment and funding has improved to some extent. For instance, during the video art festival “Video Archaeology”, held in Sofia in October 1999, some installations were even exhibited in video & sound equipment stores in the center of the city. The owners of such stores would not support with money, but would gladly support “in kind” by offering the adequate environment (this, for instance, was the case with “Quite Impossible”, 1998 by Luchezar Boyadjiev and Kalin Srerapionov, a two-monitor 20 min video work about extreme opposites in the city’s shopping habits).

However, the most adequate description for the main “thread” in Bulgarian video art production of the last 5-6 years would be the preoccupation with the issues of identity definitions and orientations. Almost exclusively materialized in short form. Rassim Kristev’s piece “Self-portrait with a cigarette”, 1995 is not only just what the title suggests – “what you see is what you get” type of 1-cigarette-long work… It is also a “document” for the most common male way to “pass time” in Bulgaria, as well as in the Balkans. Nedko Solakov’s “Some of My Capabilities”, 1995 is a short “documentary” piece about the simple things that the artist does not necessarily have to do but can do nonetheless – like touching the end of his nose with the tip of his tongue using the force of tongue’s extreme protrusion outwards and upwards…; or like wagging his male “thing” with NO hands involved (a clear sign of maleness around here…); or like drawing with a pencil…, well, that’s not such an extraordinary thing for an artist to do but still… These works have been created “a la prima” with the least possible technical means, montage included. As opposed to this, Kalin Srerapionov’s “The Hot Soup and My Home Community”, 1998 is a “document” about a certain group’s identity – an ironic comment on the professional “unity” of a community of artists which is “underlined” and “fortified” by the ritualistic eating of a bowl of very hot soup (prepared by the artist himself) by each of the nine participant in front of a video camera. The nine segments are then computer montaged into a projectible whole using a lot of computer power and time. The result looks like a manifestation of group identity which, however, is imposed by means of the cooking/eating and montage…

Not included in this selection but nonetheless significant for the trend are, among other works, Ventzislav Zankov’s “Escaping Identity”, 1997, where the passport photographs of the artist since age 14 until 1997 have been animated into a looped morph which ends in a ritualistic burning of the artist’s passport, the most official identity document; the above mentioned “Up and Down, Back and Forth”, 1995 work of Luchezar Boyadjiev’s where the artist performs tasks with an inflatable ball-globe in real-time video segments which have been incorporated into the “tampered with” Chaplin movie, thus measuring himself up to the movie’s dictatorial personage; Krassimir Terziev’s “Library Paranoia”, 1996 showing the artist lost in horror among the endless shelves of books in a public/private library; Houben Tcherkelov’s “Reality Show”, 1998 where the artist is undertaking a night trip with a luxurious car around Sofia while following the instructions for actions he has been consistently given by some unknown authority (the script follows the pattern of a famous late-night TV show and its main character Aladdin). This trend goes on all the way to the most recent video production of the youngest generation – Boryana Dragoeva’s work “Back and Forth”, 1999 in which the artist loop-sings the popular song “Dear, dear Mother, how good you are…, etc.” in a heavily computer manipulated, obsessively rude voice but with the cute, smiling face of a grown up baby; Ivan Nikolov’s “Extending of Dreams”, 1999 where the running on an empty field main character is nude while his “thing” is generously shaking all over but is however constantly hidden/suggested with a computer imposed circular spot which “extends” symbolically the “thing” in question. One of the latest works in this trend is “Dialogue”, 1999, the joint work of Ivo Moudov and Simeon Nikolov which consists of two tapes plus two screens/monitors and represents nothing else but the “joint” sharing/smoking of a joint by the two artists while the “stuff” in question is not only passing from hand to hand but is also passing “from a screen to a screen” thus creating a visual environment of communal “sin”.

By the way, smoking grass is still illegal in this country, so please, don’t tell anyone about this work, OK?

This essay first appeared in the catalogue for the 46th International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany (2000).

Iara Boubnova is an independent critic and curator who lives and works in Sofia. She is a member of the ARTMargins editorial board.

Luchezar Boyadjiev is an independant critic and artist. He lives and works in Sofia.