Alexander Kiossev

The Transition as a Sight

The Transition as a Sight
title: THE TRANSITION AS A SIGHT
year: 2006
editor(s): Alexander Kiossev
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Alexander Kiossev
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

This book is the final, summary publication produced by the Visual Seminar. For three years the Seminar served as a platform for artists, designers, photographers, architects and philosophers who tried to intervene in the visual environment of Sofia from the transition period. The Seminar proceeded from the conviction that Sofia has become unbearable for the eye and that we who are not indifferent to the city’s visual culture simply must do something about it.
We worked for three years, creating individual art projects, organising public forums and producing recommendations to the Sofia Municipal Council. This book presents only our ‘diagnoses’, i.e. the analytical part of the results of the Seminar. The individual art projects have already been presented in a series of books published by the Visual Seminar: Sofia as a Sight (2004), An Eye for the Pale City (2005), The Cliché: Memories, Images, Expectations, (2006), The City as a Museum (2006), Images of the City (Critique & Humanism, No. 1, 2005). Our political recommendations concerning the visual environment, which we produced eventually (and which are still under discussion), have been presented in the Newsletter of the Seminar as well as in other publications. The ideas we formulated are the product both of collective and individual discoveries as well as conflicts between the members of the Seminar. In this book they are complemented with texts by like-minded contributors who, for one reason or another, were not directly involved in the work of the Seminar.

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I noted above that we found Sofia unbearable for the eye: initially, this was nothing more than a conviction derived from personal experience. We had in mind the Babel-like chaos of advertisements and the total absence of regulation, ethical norms, codes of politeness and decency, etc. Our intuitions also included many other different things with a ‘visual coefficient’ which formed the visual environment around us: the squalor, dereliction, the stray dogs, the overall ‘visual pollution’ that was a symptom of alarming social processes – the illegal ads and posters, the chaotic and substandard construction without any legal regulation and town planning, the destruction of Sofia’s cultural heritage, the crystal hotels that mushroomed all over the city with no regard for the urban context, to name but a few.
In the course of the Seminar all those eclectic (and, as it turned out, sometimes contradictory) intuitions had to be thought out, and even criticised and revised. We hope that as a result of our many efforts we have ultimately succeeded in achieving some maturity of the visual diagnoses offered here.

* * *

Let us start by noting that ‘the city torments the eye’ is actually an unusual phrase. Metaphorically speaking, it is usually not the city that torments the eye but vice versa: it is the eye that torments (i.e. governs, shapes, plans, destroys and builds) the real city. In the modern age, the gaze of enlightened modern power is urbanistic: an eye-reason, a variant of the Cartesian mathesis universalis. It tries to grasp in a single whole the elusive, diverse and chaotic urban realities, projecting them onto a flat and perceivable plane, such as a map or a plan.
This operation has an effect both on the city and on the viewer. It substitutes the city with the idea about the city, and then applies this abstract and geometric idea onto (against) the actual urban realities, which resist such idealisation. The ideal city, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was only a utopia in the works of Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella and Francis Bacon, in the nineteenth century increasingly became a concrete urban development plan which reconstructed the real place of living: it demolished mediaeval quarters to build wide, straight boulevards radiating from large squares (as in Paris or Moscow), it laid out ring boulevards (as in Vienna or Budapest), it planned working-class neighbourhoods before they actually emerged (as in Berlin), it took care of sanitation, installing water and sewer mains, and it created the modern morphology of the city – industrial zones, a commercial area, networks of standardised educational and health-care institutions, residential districts, cultural sites, green areas and an infrastructure network. This was not just architectural modernisation but a comprehensive social policy in which, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, ‘the constructive principle began its domination’ – at that, not only of the architectural environment but also of the life of the city’s residents. Rationalised and normalised, this collective life was placed within a modern administrative framework: while its social hierarchies continued to have spatial expression as they did before, now the main places and buildings were no longer symbols of monarchic power and glory but were visible, public and accessible, designed for mass use by the collective and rational Sovereign itself, the People. All urban functions were spatially articulated (or, in other words, all urban spaces were democratically functionalised) and this was done within the framework of a general panoptic scheme: it was clear where the places for working, recreation and sleeping were, where the fun and entertainment was, where the permitted and where the forbidden, ‘red-light’ districts of the city were. The routes of public transport were planned and built accordingly, and a new infrastructure was created (a water and sewer system, supply of energy – coal, later electricity and gas, provision of information and communicative services, such as posts, telegraph and telephones, and eventually other channels of information as well). From an abstraction and utopia, the solar panopticism of modern power was gradually transformed into an effective micro-norm which intervened at all points of urban space – and, by regulating different spatial participants, began determining the conduct of the people who lived in or crossed them. While it partly ‘built’ a new city, demolishing and reconstructing the mediaeval one, it determined not partly but completely the new regime of living in the city, prescribing even the new regime of ‘viewing’ and production of images.
As regards this last, Benjamin points out additional symptoms of this panoptic process: the age that saw the emergence of the city-machine was also the age that saw the emergence of photography as the first means of producing mechanically reproducible images as well as the age that saw the emergence of visual spectacles like panoramas, and narrative forms like ‘panoramic’ literature. To this we may also add less ‘visual’ but sufficiently panorama-like phenomena, such as the emerging social science studying what Auguste Compte calls the statics and dynamics of society: statistics, demography, the science of governmentality, etc. Applied to the context of Sofia this was, in short, the age of the centralised, rational, technically reproducible panopticism of power. The latter’s normative character consisted not only in its building and ordering functions but also in that it marginalised private viewpoints and their random perspectives (they could not intervene in the structure and functions of the city-machine). The town squares were designed in a way that demanded a power perspective ‘from the centre’, while the city authorities imposed not only urban development plans and a scheme of city transport but also general rules regulating seemingly private spaces: they set hygiene and health norms, norms of construction and security (including the distance between private houses and roofs, the shape and colour of facades, etc.), and they even regulated the way in which individuals must cross roads or dispose of their garbage.
After the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of European cities were organised in a way that made it possible to control and administrate from a single surveillance point – the city centre – people, work cycles, traffic, trade and markets, access to citizen participation, security and police control. And, of course, visual production: the city-machine created a visual regime of its own. The centre was not only a functional hub, it also concentrated the self-representations of modern power. The feudal and monarchic heritage, together with the visual environment that embodied it, was usually transformed into a public and state-owned one; the government and parliament buildings, cultural galleries, museums, libraries became ‘public’ and ‘national’ – and demonstrated this by removing all monarchic and aristocratic symbols and installing new ‘national’ signs, statues, bas-reliefs, ornaments and decoration. For their part, the giant official town squares and ceremonial government buildings were adorned with democratic monuments, national flags and coats of arms, and political emblems, becoming modern ritual sites and sites of memory.
By this centralised and rationalised concentration, the city made visible a power superior to the power of the actual rulers – it did not glorify the power of a particular dynasty, king or local feudal lord, but the abstract power of the progressing through history People-Sovereign, represented (rightfully or not) as the power of the governing and instrumental Reason. Visible in the straight streets, in the high buildings, in the fast transport, in the functionally planned distribution of the city’s elements, in the powerful engineering facilities and the previously unthinkable technical structures (‘achievements of technological progress’) were precisely the common modern principles: the technology, rationality, centralised power, order, social engineering, industry which produced power, luxury and wealth, and the administration which produced order, security and control.
Everything that was difficult to modernise and, therefore, had better not be seen was driven beyond the city’s visible surface: the useless, the sick, the disabled, criminal elements, squalor, dereliction, poverty, the stigmatised communities… They were localised in ‘other spaces’ which were non-transparent for the outside gaze, and which scandalised and subverted the social order: in segregated and dangerous ghettoes, in grim suburbs and medical institutions with special access and special purposes, in prisons with high walls. The power-gaze determined the zones of visibility/invisibility: what was visible were its own principles, spatialised and petrified in regulated spaces: rationalism, functionalism, progressism, political representation, control, exercise of disciplinary or microphysical power. What was invisible was that which those principles could not overcome.
The entire procedure of modernisation, as French philosopher Michel de Certeau notes, endowed the real city with several ideal qualities. Firstly, it transformed the city into a restricted space (which needs to be constantly purged of all ‘foreign bodies’, expelling all physical, social and mental waste beyond its own boundaries); secondly, it turned the city into a unified social subject (as if personified, the city replaced the real social subjects, displacing the diverse individuals and groups living in it); thirdly, it hid the city’s multi-layered historical structure and gave it an ideal synchrony that concealed all anachronisms, conflicts and non-simultaneities in it. Following de Certeau, let us add that these ideal qualities acquired precisely visible form: as ‘pure, perceivable space’, the city’s unity and synchrony are symbolised in various ways in the urban space itself: as billboards of the city map placed all over the city to guide passers-by, as numerous clocks scattered across the city, showing one and the same time and synchronising all processes. Also visible are signposts pointing the way to distant districts – making those districts symbolically present within the scope of vision.
For its part, the ‘solar panopticism’ of the gaze extracts the viewer herself from the countless passers-by and residents – it spatially separates power from its subjects. It is as if the all-seeing city-building Subject floats high above the ‘objects’ whose lives it plans and governs. Detached from all concerns and pursuits of the city crowds, it is endowed with noble aloofness, omniscience and divine power, with a generalising scale and legitimacy: it is as if it combines in itself the figures of the aesthetic voyeur, the enlightened monarch-administrator, and the social engineer.
The ordinary residents, in their turn, roam and live the city at close quarters, using, abusing and adapting its order in their own ways – but without seeing it in its entirety (de Certeau compares them to lovers in each other’s arms, locked in such a tight embrace that they cannot see each other). They are relieved of responsibility for the social order in their city and most often stop understanding it – the city begins to look to them like an external, chaotic and hostile jungle (hence the common myths found in literature on the city, of its ‘mysteries’, of its being ‘Babel’, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and the like). The city is something threatening and chaotic, or conversely, something irrational, unattainable and wonderful – passers-by turn into fascinated flaneurs idly wandering round the labyrinths of its unperceivable streets and passages… Only the public role of the citizen, and not of the resident or ‘flaneur’, allows one to glimpse the city as a ‘whole’ and to try to use it in a political way that is different from that of central power. Drawing on the principles of democracy, human and civil liberty and rights, the individual can sometimes stop wandering idly round and join the protesting crowds that have taken to the streets in the name of a particular interest or cause: the citizen can contest the authorities, demand justice and redistribution, including of the ‘spatial’ goods of the city. Then the city, as well as its social order, will look different to him – perceivable and destructible.

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The late capitalist situation in which the neoliberal market has prevailed over the political sphere while the political has lost its demiurgic and panoptic ambitions, significantly changed the relationship between the city and the gaze: megapolises like LA, São Paulo, Paris or Mexico City best illustrate this. The visualised, aggressive and chaotically-multiple vita activa has now won the battle against the invisible Eye of vita contemplativa which the power of demiurgic urbanism had in early modernity. Today the demiurgic eye has lost its power and height, and no longer sets the norm of urban visuality: there is no longer an obligatory for all, privileged perspective from which the city itself, ‘the city as a whole’ must be observed. The previous norm of the eye (which was a norm of legitimate power and organisation of society) has as if crashed down amidst the urban crowds, shattering into the countless crystals of the close passer-by perspectives. Once theoretical and authoritative, the gaze has now become faceted and practical, democratic and pluralistic, involved in the separate individual and everyday trajectories: it has become random.
Democratisation, however, has come at a price as the Gaze, once an arrogant ruler and engineer of the social fabric, has been demoted to the position of a visual victim lost amidst crowds of other victims. Or, better put, to that of a visual consumer amidst an oversupply of images. The ordinary eyes of the people walking through the city instantly fall under the power of the billions of visual impulses and messages, manipulations, provocations, temptations and scandals with which the megapolis attacks them. This feminises the eyes of residents and passers-by – it deconcentrates and multi-focalises them; they escape from the power of central political control only to fall under another power: that of the hypnotic effect of the avalanche-like image-production that is immanent in the market, the dizziness caused by the countless motley urban practices. The eyes constantly receive multiple social signals sent by the city, they are constantly caught up in the theatrical and simulative games which the city plays with them. Political power itself is no longer panoptic because it is no longer the watcher but the watched – having become only one of the countless social phenomena fighting for visibility. If it is not spectacular, then politics risks not being noticed at all – it now competes on an equal footing with the entire spectrum of urban colours. That is why politicians, government ministers and presidents will appear constantly and at any cost on television and in the media: they are fighting for visibility, competing with the totally visualised city for the attention and support of its viewers.
For its part, the city has as if lost all ability to be seen as a whole, fanning out into a boundless visual chaos crisscrossed by intersecting, aggressive, mutually incompatible and competing visual flows, each one of which will not leave the eye in peace. It has escaped total transparency and the idea of rational-optic control but by this it has also ushered in darkness.

* * *

Still, let us try to identify several trends in the visual chaos of the megapolis, the typical postmodern city. Transformed from a subject into an object (or, better put, into a target, a victim, a seduced woman), in it the eye loses its sovereign active position in several respects.
The first, as I noted above, is commercial – the eye is no longer an active, directed constructive ray, but an inlet, a focus of attraction. It has turned into a contested addressee which is doomed to become, even against its will, a ‘client’ of the aggressive, competing advertising-commercial practices in the city. Their main technique is seduction and visual theatricalisation: what they project onto different screens in the city (panels, banners, billboards, logos, corporate signs, etc.) is the unconscious Desire of its residents. The commodity on sale must be associated in all possible ways with their half-conscious yearnings, passions, hidden phantasms and eroticisms, subconscious fears, obsessions and even loathings. In recent years there has been a growing shift towards lifestyle advertising which does not directly advertise the commodity itself but suggests an overall coveted way of life – it is as if these advertisements momentarily break through the city’s body, opening in it sudden utopian windows on other, distant and happy consumer worlds which, however, remain ‘at an arm’s length’… Excessive advertising may turn into a sui generis aesthetic excess which will acquire its own visual value: as Luchezar Boyadjiev notes, the absence of illuminated advertisements on building facades in Times Square in New York is simply prohibited. Istanbul has set something of a record by mounting advertisements (although usually in the form of lettering) on all floors of its high-rises, turning their facades into multi-layered and conflicting advertising messages.
The second trend is associated with the new sensitivity which the viewer must develop to the heterogeneous urban environment – the viewer must be ‘literate’, i.e. able to read its signs in order to be adequate (and, quite often, to survive) in the megapolitan jungle. Invisible before, now the entire ethnic, religious and social diversity of the city is there for the eye to see; so are the stylistic contrasts between the city’s different historical layers. To orient herself, the passer-by/viewer must be able to read the signs and emblems of different groups, the alphabets of subcultures, ethnic communities and religions; she must be able to cope with the handwritings of generations that lived in different historical worlds, to distinguish eras, monuments and architectural heritages, to become accustomed to the slogans of all sorts of political parties. She must be at least partly able to decipher the visual codes of public and secret societies, badges of clubs, graffiti by street artists, logos of companies, messages of philanthropic associations, costumes and banners of strange cults. The previous strict map which the administrator could observe and impose onto the city has disappeared – the megapolis has spread out into a colourful multicultural, multi-religious, multi-historical and multi-generational mosaic that is virtually impossible to overview and even harder to run and control. The new structure has made it necessary to decentralise government, to delegate more powers to local communities, etc. In a visual respect such a city induces, as Alexander Gelley puts it, ‘a kind of vertigo, a blockage at the level of representability’, causing giddiness in the viewer from the multiple cultural universes which he encounters every day, delight and fear of the diversity, hybridity and, occasionally, absurdity of their combinations: that is why competence of the eye is very difficult to attain.
But when the regime of visibility changes, one may expect that its opposite will change too. At first glance, in its ‘politics of invisibility’ the megapolis does not differ significantly from the modern city. Seemingly just like early modern cities, the megapolis isolates criminal elements, the insane and beggars in institutions with locked doors, making an attempt to hide the Others as well as all unpleasant extremes of city life. It is another matter that, despite this attempt, their ‘governability’ remains problematic. As technically and administratively the latter is a near-impossible task, racial, social or religious riots often break out in the streets of megacities, and the excesses of Otherness are visible and involved in the theatricalisation of the city.
Either way, however, the norm looks modern: everything that deviates from the consumer all-market optimism and expressive individualism (or groupism) has no visual rights and can therefore become visible only in an ‘outlawed’ way. Under the thousands of brightly coloured capitalist plateaus which the city forces upon the eye, it continues to hide unlit asocial corners, embarrassing folds and crevices of the urban body: impromptu slums, autonomous youth groups, squatters in derelict buildings, undefinable outcasts, miserable immigrants whose slow, invisible lives fill basements and shanty-towns, sheds and trailers, sunny psychiatric institutions with locked doors, traditional prisons and detention facilities… At least according to the norms of city government, these ought to be invisible places: they ought to be off-limits not to angels but to cameras.
In fact, the visual regime here is more complicated: it involves a peculiar intertwining of visibility and invisibility. That is because while they are invisible as documented realities, such ‘other’ spaces are visible in specific non-documentary genres: of the horror story and porno.
The majority of giant cities have particular districts and suburbs that cultivate a ‘frightening’ or ‘licentious’ aura – instead of hiding their reputation, they flaunt and sell it. In contrast with the clean and civilised urban districts, the dirty slums and shanty-towns as if want to flaunt the lack of control and urban care, making you feel vulnerable and in danger. For their part, the red-light districts have turned into total pornographic visibility, something that forty or fifty years ago would have scandalised every ‘normal’ gaze: not only have they allowed the images of what used to be regarded as ‘perversions’ and ‘vices’ to become visible, but they have also turned them into shop windows, into live sex shows, into giant billboards, annual fairs and festivals of the sex industry.
While in the days of Eugène Sue these were urban mysteries, now they are visualised and hyperbolised urban manifestations. The machine for the production of postmodern images is now operating in reverse mode: it plays out, in specific parts of the city, the shadows of the archaic passions which the panoptic machine of the rational city wanted to exclude once and for all – something like a focused summoning of the sinister spirits of specific places instead of a panoptic exorcism. At that, local imagery converts into supra-local visual flows: the real slums and shanty-towns of the megapolis are perpetually ‘doubled’ by sensational news, by tabloids, films, TV series, crime and erotic bestsellers that multiply urban legends and shocking rumours. Such places become emblematic – they become much more loci of the imagination than of the city map. It is precisely as such that they fulfil their task: of accommodating inconceivably brutal murders, shameful adventures of sick and lecherous bodies, slowly brewing disasters, biological and technological Frankenstein’s monsters…
With a postmodern rationality, the machine for the production of images has turned the home-city (Heim), or at least those parts of it, into its opposite: into sinister, uncannily alien non-places which Freud calls unheimlich. The machine has then incorporated the unheimlich itself into the intensive visual market – multiplying it into countless crime and horror stories, ensuring tourist popularity of the red-light districts, turning the places of urban curses, ghosts and horrors into guided tours.
In other words, just like the modern city the megapolis hides, interns and marginalises. But it does this in a paradoxical way: by hiding its crimes, ills, slums, miseries, madnesses behind… their own hyperbolic, projected into the realm of phantasms, images. The most invisible thing is… the screen itself; and the reality of the Other disappears, hidden behind phobic and erotic visual games projected by the imagination onto the real ‘other’ spaces themselves – but in a greatly magnified, sinister or grotesque form. This is a new visual regime: invisibility caused by… excessive visibility of the fantastic doubles.

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In a way that is both similar and different, the megapolis has begun to hide its own rationality as well – its technological and urban infrastructure which continues to be modern in essence. Could the reason be that the regime of postmodern perception of technology is no longer a cause for pride but for fear? The previous engineering structures, locomotives, industrial systems with their smoke stacks, technological wonders and signs no longer rise grandly before the eyes, signifying the march of Progress, the might of Technology and the power of Reason. As the grand narratives of Progress and Emancipation are no longer capable of radiating phantasmatic energy, the representations of ‘constructive Reason’ and Big Industry have been replaced by the images of individual consumption. The constructive (‘tectonic’) structure of buildings, so beloved of architectural modernism, has ceased to be an aesthetic value in itself. Nowadays it is hidden behind the postmodern play with facades, ironic elements, quotations from and cover versions of architectural history. The same fate has befallen all infrastructure channels: nowadays not only water and sewer mains but also air conduits, power lines, optic conductors and people-conduits (the underground railway system) are invisible: they are sunk underground or rise on pylons high above eye level (highways, city trains, S-Bahn). (Incidentally, precisely these infernal spaces – sewer systems, underground railway tunnels, lonely infrastructure sites such as underground parking lots – are frightening scenes of the megapolis as well.) Airports are far away from the city, phone cables no long cut across the urban sky as communications are underground or in a mysterious for ordinary people satellite or wireless mode. Although skyscrapers are still in place, even they no longer force upon the eye their stunning technological incredibility – most of them now look like stage designs or sets, and can be disguised as ordinary advertisements: in Bangkok, for example, there is a skyscraper whose façade is virtually hidden by a giant image of a pedestrian – and, of course, not just of any pedestrian but of Johnnie Walker himself, keep going…
In other words, it is as if the techno-civilisation and the previous panopticism that made the megacity possible are now trying to erase themselves from its screens. Although they are definitive of the way of life in the megapolis, they as if want to equate themselves with urban practices, to represent themselves as being unworthy of attention, as being almost natural and, preferably, if possible to merge with the urban market and eco-systems. In other words, they no long have visual value in itself.
Just like social Otherness, the technological skeleton of the megapolis has only one chance of becoming visible – and that is when it is in crisis, in catastrophic mode. Then it produces sensations and threats – visual material suitable for the screens of the urban unconscious along with all other obsessions, phobias and apocalyptic visions which the city constantly plays out. Both the global TV audience and Parisians themselves ‘saw’ the Saint-Denis suburb when third-generation Maghrebi immigrants began torching cars to demonstrate their lack of social prospects. In the same way, the Madrid railway station and the London Underground became visible only after trains began exploding from al-Qaeda bombs, while the Twin Towers, which had become almost part of Manhattan’s natural skyline, produced the most horrifying theatrical-real sight of the twenty-first century (as if taken straight out of films like Godzilla and Armageddon) – everyone, absolutely everyone across the world watched the sinking of the new Titanic when it struck the hot iceberg of terrorism, sinking with a solemn roar under the apocalyptic clouds of destruction, amidst the smoke of melting aluminium and flocks of office papers.
There is one more, last trend in the megapolis chaos which I will try to identify here. I have already described how the megapolis has parted with the most important gifts of Modernity discussed by de Certeau. It has lost its position as a single subject, which tried to control it and build from its centre the urban space and life, setting also their visual norm – today they are scandalised by the historical multiplicity, by the democratic dispersion, by the ethnic and social diversity of the megapolis. But the megapolis has also begun to lose its stronghold: its limited, clear spatial location which made it a ‘city’. In the age of media and virtual communications, the place and function of the city limits themselves are changing. The distant, the transcontinental, the world as comprehensive virtuality are omnipresent, they are in each PC, in each Internet club. Paul Virilio shows this very well in the case of urban safety and security: the guarded borders do not protect the city from the outside but become immanent, cameras dot the streets, scanning portals and weapons checks are not confined to airports only, ‘border controls’ against terrorism can intervene at any point of the city’s unclear territory, at any time and at any place, even on the planes and trains leaving the city.
The megapolis is no longer the obvious and homogeneous urban space, the territorial totality within which all social, economic, communicative, aesthetic and other interactions intersect and become possible. It opens up, stretches into networks, contacts and communications, it becomes ‘too open, overexposed’. As Paul Virilio writes, ‘its geodetic capacity to define a unity of time and place for all actions now enters into direct conflict with the structural capacities of the means of mass communication’.
It must be noted that Virilio is not referring only to mass communications in the narrow, telecommunications sense but to social exchanges in the broadest sense, noting that routes, interactions, the exchange of people, machines, money, images, social practices no longer recognise the boundaries of the polis as their natural setting, limits and referential system. In an urbanistic and economic respect, the de-localisation of the city consists in the transformation of the traditional relationship between city centre and suburbs (the withdrawal of the wealthy to prestigious residence areas, the unlimited growth of suburbs which begin to have their own local centres [malls], the depopulation and ghettoisation of the city centres which are alive only during the work hours of banks, office buildings and government institutions). From the point of view of industry and ecology, the previous industrial fringes of the rich global cities are being ‘cleansed’ of polluting productions and industrial districts, which are being relocated tens of thousands of kilometres away, following the cheap, postcolonial labour (losing their jobs, the locals move into the inner-city slums).
As regards the visual aspect with which we are concerned here, the post-capitalist megacity has become a system of screens that flash various spectacles in a chaotic, unregulated way: these are the ethnoscapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes and financescapes analysed by Arjun Appadurai. The post-capitalist megacity attracts various migration flows which stay or pass through it, leaving traces everywhere; from a commercial point of view, it is increasingly dominated by global visual chains, by virtual hybrids which ignore the local clients and audiences, directly targeting the global ones: by global video panels, MTV video clips, cosmopolitan interfaces, global billboards which tower above the local poor and amateur visual production. For advertisers, the real high-rises or busy intersections are nothing but one more display screen – one of many (one and the same advertisement can be seen on billboards, on television, on the Internet in Bulgaria, France, Thailand or the USA; you can hear it on the radio, etc.). In other words, the lines between urban spaces and the media are becoming increasingly blurred: urban spaces have become a tiny part of the myriads of international TV channels, local or global electronic forums, millions of chat rooms, personal blogs, wireless communications, flows of data, scanned and sent images. So are the lines between real public forms and all forms of talk shows, discussion groups of the diaspora or fan clubs of a particular city or country, or between real face-to-face communication and distance communication (by mobile phone, Skype, Web chatting…). To generalise, in this ‘overexposed’ variant virtual culture has largely ‘eliminated’ real space, thereby revising such key relationships as in/out, home/city, public/private and own/other. Analysts have pointed out this effect of ‘de-localisation’ of the city, which is associated with the ‘disembodiment’ of the individual and the arguable disappearance of the flaneur and pedestrian crowds. Following the transition from the modern city-machine to the ‘postmodern information city’, one no longer needs to idly wander round the streets in order to experience difference and diversity – located in ‘Nowheresville’, individuals surf other cyberworlds, becoming ‘motiles’, couch potatoes that are an appendage to their computers.

Sofia as a Screen of the Transition

Above I have described the visual regimes of two ideal types, the modern city and the global megapolis. Now I will use them as coordinate systems through which I will try to look at Sofia and at the findings of the Visual Seminar. I will be looking for differences, and not for ‘deviations’: the above ideal types are only cognitive tools, not norms which the Bulgarian capital must necessarily follow. In other words, I will try to describe the specific post-communist and Balkan features of Sofia, rather than possible ‘deviations’ from specific ideal standards that are supposed to be met.
The main idea of this text is informed by visual sociology. It is based on the assumption that social processes and social conflicts do not occur invisibly but have a clear visual coefficient – the question is that we need to know where to direct our gaze and how to decipher what we see, how to analyse and synthesise visual data. My method views urban space as a ‘screen’ upon which social processes have different projections. The latter are certainly not limited to direct production of images, advertisements, or even to the universal visualisation typical of ‘the society of the spectacle’ – even though Sofia, as all cities of the transition to market economy, has experienced an incredible boom in this respect. My approach assumes that every urban practice – habitation, behaviour in the street, shopping, neighbourhood contacts, transport, construction works, signs and everything else that makes up the multifaceted life of a city – has its own visual potential. And that the visuality of a city is a conglomerate of heterogeneous visualities which the urban ‘screen’ ‘reproduces’ and tends to represent as a homogeneous visual field for consumption. I have tried to analyse the heterogeneous: image-production in the exact sense of the word and, at the same time, the visual aspect of everyday behaviours, subcultures, political platforms, new places and ways of inhabiting the city, anonymous urban processes and institutional conflicts – as all of them make a visual contribution to Sofia’s intricate visual mosaic. I have tried to identify particular conflicting lines in this mosaic, which also has a historical dramatic structure (which I have tentatively called ‘Act One’ and ‘Act Two’). The leading metaphor is that of the ‘sight’, while the figure of the observer vacillates – from that of a participant in Act One to that of a gawker (flaneur) in Act Two.

Act One
The City as Democratic Theatre: New Plays on Old Stages

In the first couple of years after 1989 Sofia, as many other cities in Eastern Europe, was an arena of protest demonstrations and rallies. Their slogans were associated with democracy, a multiparty system and ‘living in truth’ (Vaclav Havel). I have examined the direct political and public significance of this mass protest elsewhere; here I will deal only with its visual effect. Apart from and irrespective of their specific political goals, the protesters involuntarily produced a sight whose aesthetics and dynamics were designed to scandalise the totalitarian city.
In fact, Sofia’s urban structure and architecture were not typically totalitarian even during the age of communism; the city remained a peculiar historical hybrid. It certainly was not transformed by communism to the extent that Moscow was, it did not need to be rebuilt after the war like Warsaw, it was not as horribly cut up by its leader’s megalomaniac visions as Ceausescu’s Bucharest, nor did it have such emblematic ‘proletarian’ streets as Karl Marx Allee in East Berlin. As in the years before communism, the city has always had something Balkanian, familiar, premodern – and in this sense, anti-totalitarian – about it. Sofia has always been a city difficult to govern centrally, far from the purity of the modern ‘panopticism’ and Benjamin’s ‘visibility of the constructive principle’. In the period after the 1878 Liberation to the Second World War, the capital of the newly liberated Bulgaria grew rather chaotically, without a clear urban development plan, keeping its premodern neighbourhoods as basic urban units, with occasional campaigns of chaotic construction. Sofia proved its modernity less through a centralised, functionally-urbanistic rationality than through symbolic de-Orientalisation – construction of emblematic buildings and demonstrative progress in catching up with civilisational achievements. Modern infrastructure was built in a similar way. Scholars of Sofia have shown that even though modern infrastructure was regarded as ‘progressive’, it took a long time to build and long remained financially problematic. Water, power, and transport facilities were unevenly distributed, insufficiently functional, ill-maintained (due to a lack of specialists) and, in fact, poorly utilised by the different groups of Sofia residents, some of which were reluctant to change their premodern habits. Parallel with historical strata from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, Sofia’s relatively narrow streets (for a long time, only those in the central part of the city were paved) eventually filled with buildings in various architectural styles, some designed by foreign architects and others by Bulgarians educated abroad (it was not until 1942 that the first Bulgarian faculty of architecture was created): National Romanticism, Sofia Sezession, and prewar Modernism or ‘mature’ postwar Modernism. But the ‘representative’ buildings and districts were next door to the spontaneously built, styleless and poor neighbourhoods of Yuchbounar and Konyovitsa, and refugee neighbourhoods with village-like, rather than town-like, houses with yards and gardens (between the Lagera and Pavlovo quarters), whereas on the outskirts socialism would later build the prefab satellite towns Mladost and Lyulin, integrating large rural populations with a premodern mentality into the urban environment.

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The ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989, however, was oblivious to this historically determined complexity of the city. By way of contrast, it made visible only that layer of the city which had distinct communist symbolic meaning – that is to say, it exposed and parodied the uniform architectural message similar to that of many other socialist capital cities. Everything that was associated with the communist apparat, emanating a feeling of impersonal collectivism, historical pomp and optimism, was to be subjected to travesties and parodies. In Sofia this architectural layer was objectified in the Stalinist Baroque whose central symmetry and heavy columns dominated the city centre (the Largo), in the political aesthetics of the Party House (the Communist Party headquarters) that stood face-to face with the monument to Lenin (who, in his turn, had his gaze firmly fixed on the future), in the mummy-like aura of the Mausoleum assembling the symbolic order of communism, in the countless statues of communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, of partisans and their helpers, memorial plates, decorations, changeable and unchangeable slogans, names of streets, boulevards, etc.
The spontaneous, colourful crowds of different people who not only protested but also rejoiced, sang, and celebrated their own boldness, who behaved (moved, jumped, danced, shouted) any way they wanted, staging their own freedom and ‘lack of restraint’ with good-humoured, playful irony were in contrast, even in conflict, with the entire system of spatialised symbols of power in communist Sofia. They moved, assembled and broke up precisely at such places emblematic of the communist regime, but without conforming to their power perspective; their behaviour placed in ironic quotation marks the city squares and tribunes from which the Party eye used to salute the parades of the united proletarian masses. The various hues of the oppositional blue (the colour of the newly formed opposition Union of Democratic Forces) and human diversity of every sort and kind flooded and drowned the fading red of leftover flags and five-pointed stars. At their own discretion, the demonstrators would block traffic, march with lit candles through places that used to be venues of tank and missile parades, surround and symbolically desecrate official public buildings. The new public actions were conducted ‘in the back’ (or, in Bakhtinian terms, against the lower body) of the government bastions – the demonstrations had already moved the new, spiritual centre of the city behind the Party House and the National Assembly, facing the Orthodox silhouette of Sofia’s cathedral.
There was a constant string of ‘vandalisms’ – at least that is how the communist press called them. In fact, Sofia had become a stage for symbolic profanations and travesties of the central architectural sites of communism. But they spontaneously refrained from violence and were more like playful performances – the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov was covered with graffiti and literally pissed on, the Soviet Army Monument was painted with blood-red paint, and the government and party buildings, as, incidentally, the whole city, were splashed with funny obscene graffiti against the communist regime.
Thus, all communist codes of the city were parodied at the level of public performance: an ephemeral, new and radical, often obscene image-production confronted the petrified vision of communist totalitarianism. Sofianites staged as a sight the clash between totalitarian urban space and the new public celebrations of freedom, in which there were simple messages and much joy and ironic play with symbols.
The slogans made visible and audible not some unexpected but basic, self-evident things: ‘Democracy’, ‘Openness’, ‘Truth’, ‘Pluralism’ ‘We Are the People’; in other words, they were about freedom, human rights and popular sovereignty, public truth and social justice. These were traditional values which did not go beyond the legitimations of Modernity (for Eastern Europe they were unthinkable during the previous communist regimes). Their simplicity made some western commentators define these events as a ‘conservative revolution’ and ‘restoration of normalcy’. These processes were claimed to be philosophically trivial, failing to generate new ideas and being nothing more than a celebration (to some extent, a naïve one) of the liberal foundations of the Modern Age. To this was added the accusation that the protestors, who had a totalitarian mentality themselves, were merely staging one total modern Subject (the People) against another (the Police State), by which they were de facto reproducing the collectivism that they wanted to reject.
This writer disagrees with this opinion. In fact, the ‘velvet revolutions’ contained an element of ‘reflexive Modernity’ – in them the Modern Age turned back upon itself to rationalise and criticise itself, but also to play with itself in a series of symbolic transformations. This was not a simple conflict between capitalist and communist ideologies but a far more complex, theatricalised clash between different possibilities and alternative variants of the project born of the Enlightenment. I claim that the ‘velvet revolutions’ were a performance which, in the most abstract layer of its message, played out a clash between two different Modernities. One followed the line of the rational panopticism of governmentality, intertwined with communist utopianism and brought to extreme by Soviet totalitarianism: centralisation, collectivism, social engineering and forced modernisation, bureaucratisation of the utopia in a cynical network of apparatchiks and ideological apparatus, police control, terror, mass fear instilled in people and institutions. This had direct architectural and urbanistic materialisation in cities: it was spatialised in demolition of old bourgeois buildings and spaces, and construction of official, empty town squares with sacralised-party centres; in domination of the official communist visual symbols (tribunes, five-pointed stars, hammers and sickles, red flags, images of the united proletariat, images of the leaders, automatised graphosphere of slogans) which were at the centre of the power perspectives and ideological structure of space. But it was also materialised in a loss-making and dirty heavy industry in immediate proximity to the newly built working-class suburbs – which were actually satellite towns of grey, dismal blocks of flats mixing the urban and rural ways of life in an absurd way. The absurd combination and contradiction between technical rationality, irrational utopianism and automated bureaucracy materialised in urban dysfunctionality resulting from the domination of ideology over practical urbanistic functions: disintegrating infrastructure, packed city transport, poor-quality construction, communal uniformity of the new prefab flats, lack of colour, environmental threats, etc.
But although it was probably flawed, the other, alternative line played out by the transition was – despite all postmodern projects proclaimed to be ‘the end of history’, ‘the collapse of Grand Narratives’ etc. – alive and vibrant. This was a liberal value programme in which Eastern Europe had no alternative for some time: individual liberties, entrepreneurship, freedom of movement of money and symbols, rule of law, pluralism, separation of powers. As the transition did not have the historical time to create this Modernity, it only staged it, creating festive performances that represented the civic principle of freedom as opposed to the panoptic, total engineering reason in its ideological mutations. In this sense, the visual layer born of the velvet revolutions looked like a parodic, mocking make-up vis-à-vis the impersonal totalitarian spaces: colourful, bright and free, but temporary.
The most important thing in it was that during the ‘velvet revolutions’ the conflict of totalitarian and liberal Modernity was staged precisely as a theatrical one, the atmosphere being ironic, playing with references and lacking radical elements. Blood was not shed: in other words, the most significant visualisation was the absence of terror as an instrument for disciplining the social whole. The early town-square ‘velvetiness’ of the transition made visible the rejection of forced social engineering.
The theatre of protests produced many symbols of this kind. Photos of the demonstrations show that the regime of bodies had changed, at least temporarily. Unlike the previous parades, the individuals no longer merged in a uniform focus – the masses in the squares no longer had uniform clothes, gestures, body postures, direction of gaze; they were not ‘masses’ nor were they ‘united’. They consisted of chaotic individuals with heterogeneous styles and behaviours, who were not susceptible to unification and discipline – it was as if they were simply different passers-by who, however, had mobilised temporarily in the name of a just as temporary common goal. Each was dressed in their specific style, made different gestures, danced any way they wanted, had their own aesthetic and political agenda, produced a unique image of their own. Above the protesting ‘people’ there was no eye to totalise it and no organisation to organise it – political parties and platforms would appear only later, and the opposition long kept the symbol representing it as a spontaneous ‘movement’… And it is precisely this sight – of the ‘unfocused’, chaotically celebrating masses – that was the biggest scandal for the centralised architectural environment.
In other words, part of the message was that in 1989 ‘the people’ (a notorious modern category) actually consisted only of expressive individualities, of Brownian motions of human atoms that had assembled in the focus of the protest for a moment only. The proof that this was a momentary state came just several months (or years) later when the new ‘masses’ broke up once again into individuals who proceeded to follow their own, different urban trajectories – and rallies and demonstrations proved to be no longer possible.

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Ephemerality was one of the most important theatrical qualities of the ‘velvet revolutions’ – they were brief, short-lived. They changed the symbolic aura of the city but not its material and urban structure. Yet even so, they had some lasting effects on the visual environment.
The policy of several municipal councils to intervene at points where the city’s symbolic aura had more distinct materialisations can be regarded as an attempt at their continuation. They ‘cleansed’ the city of red flags, slogans, communist signs as well as – at least partly – of the pantheon of communist names by which the communist regime had renamed the streets and squares of bourgeois Sofia.
The most ‘visible’ attempt in this respect was the renaming of streets and squares. A timid effort was made to keep the symbols of the ‘velvet revolution’ – the square in front of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was renamed Demokratsiya (Democracy) as a reminder of the demonstrations that had consecrated it. But this was an exception: most of the name changes went further back in history. Communist Sofia needed to be represented as ‘patriotic’ (with monarchic and Orthodox leanings): the pre-1944 names were restored or (in keeping with the restoration principle) replaced with names of Bulgarian kings, queens and princesses, of eminent Bulgarians from the period of the National Revival and the age of the ‘state-builders of Bulgaria’, with names from the patriotic geography of Bulgaria, etc. Georgi Dimitrov Boulevard restored its old name Marie-Louise, the street with the shameful name Andrei Zhdanov became Pirotska once again, Georgi Kirkov Boulevard – Stefan Stambolov, Emil Markov Boulevard – Gotse Delchev, Dimitar Nestorov Boulevard – Ivan Evstatiev Geshov… Also symptomatic were name changes, such as those from Paoun Grozdanov to Cherkovna (Church) Street, or from Lenin Boulevard to Tsarigradsko Chaussée (Road to Constantinople): some cases indicated that the urban symbolic policy was now oriented towards new, more distant horizons (the new Madrid and Montevideo boulevards, the new name of a small street in the Lagera Quarter pompously named Suvet na Evropa [Council of Europe] etc.).
This symbolic policy of the new municipal councils had two priorities: it was a policy of restoration (restoring old urban symbols from before the Second World War); as we have seen, it ‘celebrated’/visualised the memory of the ‘velvet revolution’ itself to a far lesser extent. On all other issues, this policy lacked clear vision and priorities: this became even clearer following its failure in another area in which the symbolic materialisations were far more monumental and long-lasting. Lacking a concept about what to do with the communist sculptural heritage, the municipal authorities took a most inconsistent approach towards the monuments of the communist regime – these monuments were neither preserved nor destroyed, the attempt being, if possible, to do nothing or to do everything at once. Some of the memorial plates of communist activists, partisans and their helpers were removed while others were not. The monument to Lenin disappeared surreptitiously one night, but the one to the Soviet Army became the focal point of a series of dramas of symbolic desecration and symbolic cleansing. As regards the communist obelisk in Freedom Park (whose old name, Boris Gardens, was restored), nothing happened. The Mausoleum was demolished by a late and arbitrary government act (its difficult demolition turned into a parody itself), whereas the monument to Bulgaria’s 1,300th anniversary designed by Valentin Starchev in the park in front of the National Palace of Culture was left to crumble, turning into dirty ruins from which the communist symbols are falling away by themselves (due to the poor quality of the workmanship but also to the lack of maintenance). The monuments and sculptures that were not directly linked with particular communist heroes but were simply standard and anonymous sculptures of ‘communist people’ were not touched. Various sculptural groups in unmistakeable Socialist Realistic and Socialist Romantic style are still in place all over Sofia – as, for example, the socialist athletes in front of the Vassil Levski Stadium or the Bulgarian-Soviet ‘allied’ soldiers at the four corners of the bridge between Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard and Graf Ignatiev Street, to name but a few.
The theatre of the velvet revolutions did not turn into a stable policy towards the city’s symbolic places: no one even noticed the problem. The absence of a politics of memory led to ridiculous paradoxes, of which I will give a single example: the teenagers who took over the space in front of the Soviet Army Monument with their acrobatic skateboards came up with teenage etymologies of the old communist names (according to one teenage essay, Freedom Park means precisely a park of youth freedom: ‘there people don’t walk but fly’…). The irony of history…

Act Two
The Fading Socialist City Versus Colourful Neoliberal Diversity

The pendulum began to swing back in Sofia even in the first years of the transition: the network of places, sites and images that made up the ideological panopticism of the communist city began to fall apart, but the mirror effect of this process was that the temporary ‘public’ city of the protest and festive transition was gradually forgotten. Parallel with this dual process, a new and, in the first years of the transition, still nascent network of places and images developed chaotically – a network of capital, entrepreneurship and global-local consumer culture.
But these processes were not consecutive: the conflicting, and sometimes perverse intertwining of the three simultaneous visual dynamics was directly observable on the screen of the city. In fact, it would be more appropriate to speak of heterogeneous screens rather than of a single screen, because the visual conflicts were many and they are difficult to subsume under a common denominator. Below, in a somewhat fragmentary style, I will try to extract and enumerate several pictures from this knot. They have only one thing in common: the eye simply could not avoid them, they were and still are displayed before the eyes of everybody – irrespective of whether their visibility is self-evident or requires expert interpretation to reveal its hidden social meanings.

Weak Municipal Power as a Sight

The negative side of this process – the breakdown of the previous centralised-ideological, bureaucratic government of the city – took extreme forms. At times even the minimum of governmentality that every big city needs to have was called into question. Along with the many clashes in public and on TV, Sofianites saw, literally, the municipal authorities’ inability to control the city’s gradual decline, plus several additional, heavy municipal crises.
The mayoralty, municipal council and chief architect of Sofia largely abdicated their administrative-urbanistic functions: after the first years of street festivities and parrhesiastic publicity the city shifted towards the private sphere, multiplying its initiatives and perspectives, and becoming difficult to overview and govern. This occurred in a context of constantly growing visibility of the figure of the mayor: at least three mayoral ‘postures’ changed in succession – the figure of Alexander Yanchoulev (1991–1995) who lacked a clear image, the smiling-criminal media image of Stefan Sofiyanski (1995–2005), and that of Boyko Borissov (2005 – present), a ‘sad, careworn by the city’s problems’ macho.
The weak government of the city had specific causes, some of which were criminal and must be investigated by the relevant authorities. But it also had a general, non-specific, structural cause: the huge and chaotic social energy concentrated beyond the control of the city’s official authorities. Sofia’s space constantly staged one and the same drama: a barely sustained municipal order threatened by merciless pressure from all sorts of private, legal, semi-legal and criminal mechanisms of utilising the city, which sometimes resulted in its plunder. There was a huge amount of utterly unscrupulous individual and group initiatives, various forms of entrepreneurship, struggles, conflicts, claims that would stop at nothing to achieve their ends. Irrespective of the municipal ordinances and regulations, private businessmen built whatever they wanted wherever they wanted – for example, they built up the area of the ring road. People from various social strata and trades – most often the taxi drivers – could decide on a whim to block major intersections and cause a very visible transport crisis in the whole city. There was no power to ban the book vendors from Slaveykov Square or the sale of pirate CD ROMs in the square because of which Bulgaria risked being listed as a ‘pirate’ country by the European Union and the USA. No municipal prohibitions could stop school-leavers on the way to their high-school prom from riding standing, their upper bodies sticking out of the windows of recklessly speeding cars, or even less compel the Roma from the Fakoulteto ghetto to pay their electricity bills, or end the execution-style killings in the streets of Sofia. There was no police force to awe the huge aggressive bodies of ‘the wrestlers’ hanging out in cafés and clubs day and night. There was no municipal council decision on the disposal of Sofia’s garbage which some small village could not stop by means of protest demonstrations, human chains, highway blockings, etc.
In this context of multilateral pressure, the anyway flawed management and administration of Sofia were often and easily blocked – not only because of the above-mentioned general cause but also because of an inadequate regulatory framework, lack of administrative capacity, unprofitable but already signed contracts, weak judicial control and lack of court sanctions, lobbyist interests, or simply because of delayed issuance and theft of documents. And if we have to enumerate obvious and well-known facts about misgovernment, they will inevitably include the constant conflicts between the mayor and the municipal council, the belated, ineffective and contradictory regulations, the frictions between different lobbies. They were visible – meaning that they constantly spilled out of the conference room and spectacularly entered the media. To them we must add many other scandals and fruitless court cases (which turned out to be nothing but shows) over suspicious transactions in which the municipal council contributed strategically located land lots in Sofia as non-cash assets, the construction of hotels, the privatisation of Municipal Bank, the absurd contracts concluded by Sofiyanski and the municipal real-estate company Sofiiski Imoti, the participation of municipal councillors in companies, and what have you.
But the visible aspect of the crisis of government was not limited to its television and scandalous dimensions. What was happening with a city left to its own devices was in itself a sight too. Behind the theatre of the conflicts everything that the mayor and the municipal council were supposed to look after was left to crumble, abandoned or sold off, shaping the Sofia landscape as both desert- and Babel-like.
For more than ten years Sofia’s roads, including some of the busiest thoroughfares, were left without maintenance and began to look like the moon’s surface: strewn with visible ruts, cracks and tangible holes, even with ditches that could swallow a whole car. At the end of the transition period most of the roads in the commercial area of the city as well as the major boulevards and links were admittedly repaired, but the small roads and the space between blocks of flats on the outskirts of Sofia have remained a monument to the collapse of communism and the absence of municipal care to this very day.
Even more telling of the breakdown of centralised municipal government were the repeated crises in various subsystems of the urban infrastructure: ‘the water crisis’ during mayor Yanchoulev’s term in office (its visible aspect were the thousands of Sofianites who went on a winter march for water carrying plastic containers), ‘the garbage crisis’ under mayors Sofiyanski and Boyko Borissov (huge, spectacularly stinking piles of garbage in corners and on pavements), Sofia’s unsuccessful cabling (snowflakes on TV screens), the criminalisation of the municipal central-heating company, scandals with the monopolist electricity company, the poor state of public transport, the endless delay of the construction of the Sofia underground railway…
While those crises were temporary, the transport crisis was permanent and conspicuous. The number of cars grew incredibly (exceeding one million in Sofia) and began to stage one and the same play every day: flashy Porsches, dark Mercedeses and silvery BMWs were and still are stuck equally hopelessly in Sofia’s traffic jams alongside still sputtering Trabants, dilapidated Moskviches and Western-made jalopies bought for pennies: they squeeze past their randomly parked brethren next to which the skeletons of vehicles abandoned by their owners are quietly rotting away. To this we must add the inability of the traffic police to regulate the traffic jams and indiscriminate parking, as well as the strikes by taxi drivers (the sudden yellowing of some key intersections, the chains of yellow taxi cars surrounding key government buildings) and public transport drivers, the lack of funds for repair works, the miserable ‘patching up’ of water mains, the electricity and road systems…
As we shall see below, the city lived a busy commercial life, it was being globalised and intensified. This was a paradox: while the city was on the way to becoming a global and multicultural megapolis, its technological network, deprived of funds, political will and judicial control, demonstrated its breakdown before everybody’s eyes. Not knowing what to do, Sofianites observed the postmodern commercial flowering of their city which, at the same time, was losing its modern infrastructural and functional backbone – that which makes a city possible.

The Advance of Nature

One effect of the absence of strong local government institutions is that the city is now threatened with the advance of its Other – nature and asociality. The visible rise of crime as a manifestation of this asociality will be discussed below. On ‘Nature as an Asocial Wilderness’ there is an interesting text by Angel Angelov in this book, written in 1998 and describing the Sofia landscape as a complex mixture of abandonment, squalor, spatially objectified hostility, mentality problems, inter-personal aggression and absence of an urban sanitation policy.
Here I will add some personal observations. From 1990 onwards grass began to grow in the cracks in central streets, gardens and parks turned wild, and especially the spaces between blocks of flats in the prefab suburbs were gradually overgrown with weeds and bushes, becoming an impenetrable wasteland. Owing to the malfunctioning of the sanitation services and the sewer system, entire areas were regularly flooded and polluted, and some streets developed perennial puddles brimming with life. Sofianites were daily witnesses to the biological cycle in which the decay of organic waste gives birth to a new biological mass. For Sofianites, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ proved to be an observable maxim: the rusting and natural decay, deterioration, decomposition, disintegration and dispersal of urban structures, the rotting of timber, the dismantling, theft and disappearance of solid metal constructions, deep underground cable networks, water pipes, heavy rails and bronze monuments (because their expensive metal parts were sold for recycling) was happening before their very eyes. At times, especially in the first years of the transition, this looked almost like deliberately staged symbolic acts. Overflowing garbage cans, incredibly filthy streets… Skeletons of abandoned cars breeding their own flora and fauna in their hollow husks. Giant pieces of plaster peeling and crashing near innocent mothers pushing prams, non-maintained buildings crumbling ‘of themselves’ – one such building even crushed to death two girls who happened to be driving by in a car when part of the wall collapsed.
At the same time, in the first years of the transition and, as a matter of fact, to this very day, one of the biggest problems of Sofianites were the packs of stray dogs, often aggressive towards elderly people and children, which literally chased away the typical of the city bourgeois, elegant cats that had survived the age of socialism. With their huge number, they were not simply dogs but a visible and barking problem of the city which gave rise to a whole series of serious political and municipal debates: specialists interpreted this debate as a convenient metaphor for the national concerns and urban utopias – how do the stray curs represent us before the foreign tourist’s eyes? Or, what is the right approach towards the homeless and the helpless, towards the outcast and the marginal, towards animals, nature and the eco-balance in the ideal city? Or, what type of municipal government do we expect: cold and mercilessly-destructive or eco-friendly? Could murder, be it of dogs, be staged in the streets of the city, before the eyes of children? Won’t the tough measures against the dogs turn Sofia once again into a totalitarian city, using administrative methods borrowed from concentration camps?
The statistics on the number of stray dogs varied within a huge range – from 40,000 to 100,000 – which meant that practically no one knew their number. They were relatively harmless in the daytime but after sunset their packs seized the Sofia nights like fierce messengers of nature, and filled them with the sounds of natural passions: thirst for blood, lust, noise and fury. In one of his preliminary projects, Visual Seminar member Krassimir Terziev synthesised the fears of the average Sofianite in a telling video-art installation: a mobile panorama of an anonymous Sofia neighbourhood, prefab, decrepit and dirty, amidst which there suddenly rise 100-fold magnified silhouettes of stray dogs that look like prehistoric dinosaurs or Godzillas, heads towering above the prefab apartment buildings – in a deserted city where they are the only inhabitants.
At the end of the transition this fury somehow calmed down and the canine picture was imperceptibly transformed from an aggressive into an idyllic one. The homeless stray monsters turned back into half-tame mongrels whose wagging tails no longer scared even children: could it be that nature was once again tamed by primordial rural means? For with the exception of partial castration, all other programmes on coping with the problem (on which a lot of money was wasted) failed – stray dogs have remained a feature of the Sofia landscape to this very day, not only on the outskirts but also in the centre.

The City-in-Ruins Versus the Vibrant City: Intensification of Space

This decline, rising crime, increasing wildness and emptiness of the centralised polis was only one side of a contradictory process. The other side was different: a new, enterprising and lively commercial city was being born, a colourful polis of private enterprise that penetrated everywhere in a molecular and sometimes quite comic way. This penetration visibly defied the timid attempts at regulation and introduction of centralised town-planning requirements – the market was taking over, in a vibrant, cheerful or unscrupulous way, all spaces of the city it could get hold of.
After the deprivation and bleakness of the so-called ‘Loukanov Winter’ (winter 1990/1991), during which the capital city was subjected to an economic siege and artificially created shortages for political purposes, the old markets suddenly came to life. The unexpected abundance of goods and products that flooded Sofia’s marketplaces was truly stunning for the eye of the socialist person: it was as if the socialist ‘exemplary’ shops had indiscriminately opened their secret storehouses and poured out all their forbidden riches before the eyes of everybody, for all to see… Passing into private hands, the ordinary neighbourhood shops promptly renamed themselves from ‘grocery’ to ‘mini-market’ and, accordingly, filled up to overflowing with a variety of goods that was most unusual for socialist eyes. Then new colourful and lively commercial areas began to pop up in the most unexpected places, even in places that would have been market taboos from an orthodox socialist perspective – as, for example, a marketplace for antiques and souvenirs in front of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a new vegetable market by the tramway line in Sofia’s narrowest and busiest street, Graf Ignatiev, a flea-market in the concrete bed of the Vladaiska River, a book market in Slaveykov Square, new commercial passageways, arcades, booths, caravans, stalls or simply wares displayed on a piece of cloth on the ground.
In a visual respect, capitalism provided an object lesson in intensive use of space while skirting government plans and regulations – formerly deserted places, niches, holes and surfaces were utilised in all sorts of ways; Sofia courtyards were transformed into French-style restaurants, old kiosk switchgears into chalga taverns; garages and basements were converted into Internet clubs, blank walls became high-demand commercial space, basements opened their neoliberal windows to petty trade, post boxes filled with flyers, brochures and promotional leaflets. Newspaper vendors appeared in the streets (they had disappeared for more than forty years), and the number of booths grew exponentially.
The most telling example of this intensification is what happened with the spacious, formerly empty, aesthetically useless and officially grand halls and foyers on the ground floors of the National Palace of Culture. After they were let out (the thirteen-century-old Bulgarian culture could not financially support the huge building), they were filled or, more precisely, glutted with the maze-like tiny shops of a dense flea market where everything was on sale – from kitschy souvenirs to Turkish T-shirts, Taiwanese electronics, flip-flops, Swiss watches and Paulo Coelho. Lyudmila Zhivkova’s symbolic centre of socialist culture, the palace of ‘nationwide aesthetic education’, for the construction of which whole districts of old Sofia were demolished in the 1970s, was commercially and bloodlessly taken over – in a matter of months and in every single inch of its totalitarian space. From an empty mausoleum of ideologically sacralised culture it turned into a vending hive, from an urban symbol of centralisation into a super-intensive, kitschy intersection of rapidly scattering commercial channels.

‘Squat Shops’ and Hotels: Visual Contrasts in Central Sofia

For a whole decade, central Sofia demonstrated to the curious the comic contrasts of the city’s new entrepreneurship.
Its first element was the ubiquitous mushrooming, which I mentioned above, of stalls, kiosks, pavilions, cafés, grillrooms, Afghan and Arab sandwich shops, new Chinese restaurants with paper lanterns, firms big and small. This type of small family business also had its discoveries: for example, the ingenious ‘squat shops’ (klekshop) in Sofia basements, small shops selling beer, soft drinks, candy bars, etc. out of windows at basement level, which imperceptibly created a whole new body culture of shopping.
The second element was opposite: the city was visibly taken over also by big money and the concomitant nouveau-riche pretensions seeking another, be it designer-made or upstart, visibility: hotels, posh shops, arcades, boutiques, previously unthinkable shop windows, pricey restaurants. The new luxury usually concentrated in the upscale shopping streets (Vitosha, Solounska, Stamboliyski, Legè, Graf Ignatiev, which rapidly filled with Hugo Boss, Max Mara, Bata, Krizia and other fashion stores); in the centre of Sofia, the socialist TzUM Central Department Store was converted into a glitzy and empty super-store, and the first malls appeared at the end of the period under review (City Center Sofia in the Lozenets Quarter, Mall of Sofia at the corner of Opulchenska Street and Stamboliyski Boulevard; another seven or eight malls are currently under construction). Hotel Balkan became the Sofia Sheraton, and Hotel Sofia the Radisson; after many twists and turns, a Hilton finally appeared in Sofia, and the number of hotels in the city soared. In the last fifteen years it reached 144 (this is the number of luxury hotels – according to statistics, there were just eleven such hotels in communist Sofia). Nobody knew and knows whether these hotels, which according to specialists are at present about forty percent full, will indeed be filled to capacity or whether they will eventually be sold to launder somebody’s dirty money, go bankrupt and turn into derelict crystal tombs in the centre of Sofia.
Parallel with the leading international hotel chains, there appeared glitzy office buildings and new hotels, some with a global and others with an ‘experimental’ look: most of them imitated rather than actually reproduced a new, global aesthetics. Some have remained curiosities to this very day: for example, the ‘quotation’ (or plagiarism?) of Viennese Sezession in the dome of the building on Moskovska Street (an architect described the sphere of sculpted bird silhouettes mounted on the roof of a Sofia apartment building as ‘Holding company builds nest’) or the two identical crystal palaces hovering between postmodern irony and homegrown childishness, designed by architect Bogdanov (on Stamboliyski Boulevard and on Vassil Levski Boulevard – the unfortunate owner with the exotic nickname Yaponetsa/The Jap happened to be shot in front of the latter).
But this geography of luxury was not well-developed, especially at the beginning of the transition: lacking breadth of vision and, probably, enough money, Sofia capitalists did not work with entire districts but with buildings and separate land lots – piecemeal, without looking for contextual urban solutions, with no interest in proximities. Yet the latter could be truly amusing. For example, even on Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s most expensive shopping street, there were squat shops until recently and there are street stalls to this very day – right in front of the super-expensive stores. The new ‘crystal palaces’ of private capital (hotels and business centres), with dark mirror glass facades, popped up (and still do) in the most incredible urban contexts, often in jarring contrast with the skyline of the street and the nearby facades, totally disregarding the city’s memory and architectural traditions. Their luxurious silhouettes rise unembarrassed next to grey old prefab blocks of flats, their mirror glass reflecting peeling apartment buildings with pensioners peeping out of the windows. In the text of the city they look like absurd quotations of globalisation or, rather, like global upstarts who neither know nor particularly care exactly where they have ended up.
One of the newly built hotels – rising on land formerly owned by the University of Sofia! – named itself pretentiously Crystal Palace, a name reminiscent, on the one hand, of the first architectural symbols of capitalism, London’s Crystal Palace built in 1851 to house the first world exposition, and on the other, designating with unconscious self-irony the failure of its own nouveau-riche pretension to tradition, gravity and nobility. Because hardly any of its visitors will know what the name implies – this type of capitalist is not very strong on memory.

The Sofia Suburbs: Global and Local, Criminal and Communal

A new satellite area emerged around Sofia in ten years or so, an area rarely visible for those who did not have a car and, moreover, had to save on tickets for public transport after the successive price hike: commercial suburbs with luxurious head offices of leading global companies, such as Toyota, Renault, Citroen, Peugeot, Ford, Chevrolet… They took over and built islands of standardised-global civilisation, functional palaces standing peacefully next to grey apartment buildings on desolate land with a frankly rural-neighbourhood appearance, in front of overgrown meadows, giant puddles and muddy roads. The first supermarkets (Billa, Technopolis, etc.) also appeared in these areas. Most of them were located there for understandable reasons – by highway arteries, and had their backs turned to the miserable background of the asocial wilderness and post-communist dereliction.

‘Moutro-Baroque’ Amidst Ditches and Gutters

Even more interesting, however, were the contrasts and urban-aesthetic finds in the posh residential suburbs. Boyana, Simeonovo and Dragalevtsi developed an architectural style which popular lore ingeniously called ‘moutro-Baroque’. Amidst privatised streets guarded by private bodyguards rose housing hybrids that seemed to come straight from Wilhelm Hauff’s and Charles Perrault’s fairytales about pinnacled castles, but had evolved through various phases: of haciendas and bunkers, Dallas-like estates and Las-Vegas aesthetics, with the ubiquitous towers and turrets, with ‘split’ levels, half-floors and bay windows, with strange ornaments, battlements, ancient colonnades… But invariably with thick garden walls which separated them from the increasingly wild surroundings.
Bankya, a traditional spa village, illustrated in a specific way this conflict between the crumbling former socialist environment and the emerging private building frenzy – now at the level of overall urban structure. In the period between 1990 and 1999, the transition could be observed in chemically pure form in this Sofia village with a unique micro-climate: running by the brand new, luxurious private castles of various gangland bosses, which hid swimming pools, tennis courts and English lawns behind their high garden walls, were steep, storm-ravaged, almost unpassable streets with overflowing gutters and filthy streams. The municipal council of the resort did not have money to repair them (or for repairing the water supply, sewer system and telephone network): Bankya managed to be both super-rich and super-poor, it was made up of islands of private luxury floating in a derelict communal infrastructure.

Post-Socialist Postmodernism

The more ordinary residential areas, which experienced an unprecedented construction boom, produced another typical Sofia style. It can be defined as natural (in the sense of ‘spontaneous’) postmodernism. Following the chaotic privatisation of land lots, private firms built new apartment buildings; to meet the official architectural requirements concerning location and distance from the neighbouring buildings while achieving maximum saleable area, they were shaped like monotonous parallelepipeds at the level of their first four or five floors, but terminated unpredictably at the upper level – in several more under-roof floors born of fantasy and the desire for maximum profits. They stun the observer with extravagant Hundertwasser-like slants and angles, with Gothic roofs, romantic mansards, round or hexagonal towers designed as if for alchemists, with maisonette outgrowths worthy of Hitchcock’s imagination. The new buildings had a rather frivolous attitude to town planning, standing at arbitrary angles, axes and spatial perspectives in relation to each other, deviating anyway they wanted from the line of the street, rising randomly in the air without thinking of looking for a common skyline. If we use Goethe’s metaphor, from a bird’s eye view the architecture of those residential areas indeed looked like frozen music – like petrified chalga. This is what Sofia has inherited for the next fifty years, or maybe even more.

The Visual Waterfall and the Image of the Happy/Angry Consumer

One of the most intensive productions in the last fifteen years has been the production of images in the narrow sense of the word: not simply visual coefficients of the various social aspects of the change, but literally an avalanche of billboards, logos, trademarks, panels, signs, TV spots, commercials, Internet ads, labels, posters, banners, flyers, leaflets… This over-concentrated commercial imagery, with all its conflicts and mixes, did not simply strike but fought for the eye. Sofia became a giant advertisement. The city turned into an area for projecting images that began to appear in likely and unlikely places: on facades, roofs, blind walls, pedestrian subways, but also on taxi signs, traffic signs, T-shirts, trucks and even toilets. Objectors began complaining of visual aggression and ‘visual pollution of the environment’ – indeed, environmental rhetoric seemed the only legitimate tool against the visual invasion by the market.
Lying behind these visible forms were more complex social processes. The Visual Seminar focused especially on one of them: the almost sudden disappearance of the images of labour, the proletariat and production (which were so typical of the Socialist Realistic visual environment) and their complete replacement by the invading images of the private individual and consumption in all its forms: from a brutal passion for consumption to eroticism to sophisticated lifestyles or various kinds of ‘manias’ (the label maniashko or ‘manic’ – roughly the equivalent of ‘cool’ – from youth slang acquired important commercial functions). The society of the communist spectacle was imperceptibly replaced by a society of happy self-representations of capital. Where in the past one could see slogans and posters of united workers’ masses marching towards the future, there was now a rosy-cheeked drunk grinning and holding a bottle of brandy; where in the past Lenin pointed towards the future with a prophetic gesture, popular TV show host Slavi Trifonov now chatted away on a mobile phone (‘Everybody’s talking’, according to the advertising slogan of one mobile phone operator); on the site of the demolished mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov there now rose a giant box of Johnnie Walker, and the images of voluntary workers’ picks and spades, combined harvesters and tractors were swept away by those of ‘super’ waffles, chewing gums and kosmodisks. Instead of the enthusiastic newsreels of socialism in which farmers drove combined harvesters pouring golden wheat, the fair fruit of united labour, television used the nostalgic-patriotic aesthetics of Measure for Measure, director Georgi Dyulgerov’s epic film from the 1980s about the Macedonian liberation movement, to advertise haidouks cutting Macedonian sausage with swords.
Consumer images ranged from the populist to the elitist, including a number of other hybrid aesthetics: not only happily satisfied images of ‘ordinary people’ who had forgotten the previous shortages and now enjoyed their glass of brandy, plate of salad and socialist-nostalgic frankfurters ‘made of meat’ (as one advertising slogan went), but also considerably more diversified visual messages – folksy-populist, Bulgarian-statistically-average, ‘for pensioners’, ‘erotic’, ‘youth’ or western-style in various exotic settings and luxuries with different aesthetics and lifestyles. In this context there were ads coming straight from the global studios of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, but there were also crude hand-made ads as well as works by local, Bulgarian and Balkan studios. For the purpose of this analysis, the most interesting and problematic were the advertising ‘breakthroughs’ of Bulgarian companies, ‘egoists’ and creators who did not hesitate to provide amazing insights into the national character in their effort to attract consumer interest. Entirely in keeping with the Nietzschean spirit – beyond good and evil – they visualised a colourful palette of behaviours unthinkable for the average morality, including borderline sexual or criminal practices spiced with Balkan machismos or simply nasty pictures. Flirt Vodka made its boom by means of a scandalous sadomasochistic aesthetics and advertising messages on the verge of pornography. Macho messages of the ‘men-know-why’ type (the advertising slogan of a brand of beer) led to lawsuits (but also to commercial success), while recently a company I had never heard of before advertised its blank advertising panels and billboards by displaying them with irresistible pictures captioned ‘Your ad will stick here’ and showing a nasty, filthy piece of chewing gum ‘stuck’ and stretching slimily in various embarrassing places: on a hairy male arm or crushed under a sole; another variant of the same ad showed candy floss stuck on the dubiously clean cheek of a child.
What was the commercial reason that made Bulgarian advertisers ignore the commercial potential of ‘average taste’ and ‘average morality’ and begin using for visual-commercial purposes such liminal states (aggression or what mass mentality regards as smutty and perverse; transgression and even revulsion)? They obviously felt that such shocking images would have a hypnotic effect in the Bulgarian environment, in the aggressive and traumatised context of the transition. The very ‘averageness’ of Bulgarian society, just as the average class of the State, were in a condition of semi-existence and insecurity for a decade; they felt threatened and anxious, and perhaps this, precisely, gave rise to the irrational desire for symbolic desecration of everything possible (obscenities and swearwords were used indiscriminately, they were part of the audio-environment of the transition). That is why the Bulgarian advertisements showed real genius in reflecting the traumatised collective unconscious: they merely redirected along commercial channels the mass Bulgarian phantasms, fears, aggressions and loathings back towards their own statistically average producer who, however, was now cast in the role of a consumer. Thus, through pressure on their visual environment, the city and the market returned to the producer the scandalous images of what was ‘dearest’ to him, of that which would move him most, touching his wounded soul. And which would recommend him shopping as therapy.

Privatisation of the Public Domain, the Crisis of Public Symbols

As noted above, by 1993 or 1994 Sofia had largely been cleansed of communist public symbols and, at the same time, ceased to be the public city of the transition. Rallies and demonstrations lost their appeal, meaning and image, the total ‘blueing’ of streets and squares became a thing of the past, and the hunger strikes conducted before everybody’s eyes and the tent towns of truth and protest suddenly began to look unthinkable. And if it occurred to anybody to press their demands in this way (there were such cases: miners, owners of inconclusively privatised land lots, laid-off workers, etc.), they risked becoming a curiosity rather than a social force. The public spaces of socialism were desecrated, deserted and left to run wild while, at the same time, the ephemeral stages of the transition emptied, disappeared, filled with a different urban content.
But this process was only the surface of something much more far-reaching: the public domain was gradually losing its visibility as such, both in its civic and in its official-state, emblematic variant. Albeit partly and not completely, public places, symbols and faces were gradually privatised and ousted by the forms of private life and the market. And especially by the big replacement of and substitute for public culture: the private media.
There were many examples. With the exception of some key political buildings (the National Assembly, the President’s Office), all other symbolic and emblematic buildings and architectural sites of Sofia did not enjoy particular care and maintenance by the municipal or state authorities. And they gradually fell into ruin, involuntarily staging their own insignificance. For a long time the roof of the former Palace (now the National Art Gallery) threatened to collapse, the burned Party House with its castrated five-pointed star remained smoke-stained and smashed for five or six years, the reconstruction of the Central Hali Shopping Centre lasted ten years or so, while that of the Sofia Public Baths has not been completed to date… The overall impression was that of a city which lacks the funds and energy to preserve its traditional architectural emblems, a city which cannot and does not want to maintain its ‘symbolic infrastructure’. In addition, part of Sofia’s specific architectural heritage was not included among the monuments of culture subject to municipal care and preservation under the relevant law. Other lovely Sofia landmarks were privatised and demolished (for example, the Prošek beer factory opposite the building of Bulgarian National Television, on the site of which now gapes the largest capitalist variant of Andrey Platonov’s Foundation Pit – yet what is now being built is not the bright future but the successive business centre with office rooms to let).
The logic of disintegration, embodied by the symbols of the public, was also reproduced by what was happening in the public places of civic life. The expanding market appropriated them – in some cases in a lawful and in others in a questionably lawful way (futile lawsuits over the privatisation of various public buildings, land lots and properties are being conducted to this very day). In this murky process the Sofia Municipal Council managed to dispose of an incredible number of buildings and land lots by contributing them as non-cash assets in a series of scandalous transactions. The scheme that proved the most disastrous involved the purchase, resale and artificial ‘bankrupting’ of Sofia’s traditional cinemas – probably to the benefit of the new multiplexes and gambling enterprises: this demonstrated in public how the socialist-type culture gave way to a market of a Balkan-criminal type in the urban environment. In addition, the city lost about twenty percent of its green areas to various constructions projects, petrol stations and parking lots. On the site of the former City Library there is now a grand hotel over which a lawsuit is still in progress but whose café has meanwhile succeeded in devouring part of the Sofia City Garden in the same way as restaurants sprawl out not only on the pavement but even on part of the road (as is the case on Oborishte Street, between Vassil Levski Boulevard and Alexander Nevsky Square). The former Deveti Septemvri Square (Ninth of September [1944] Square, now Alexander Battenberg Square) was temporarily occupied by smelly Bierfests for months, and permanently by a huge, incredibly ugly parking lot obstructing traffic. In a similar way the square in front of the National Theatre was converted into a commercial area for a negligible sum, while a private music club with the parodic name Bibliotekata (The Library) moved into the National Library for a ridiculous rent. Important emblematic places for the socialist intelligentsia disappeared (I am not sure, however, whether this was such a bad thing after all) – as, for example, the restaurants of the Writers’ Union and the Union of Bulgarian Artists, taken over by cafés, shops, cinemas, chalga clubs…
The commercial conquest of the public, the civic and the municipal reached even the smallest urban features – for example, the municipal-owned tramway stops and electric poles were covered with all sorts of private ads and offers, and even the metal bars of traffic signs sprouted additional advertising panels, plates and signs that actually obscured the traffic signs themselves. Thus, as a result of this commercial and advertising invasion yet another urban subsystem – that of orientation and traffic regulation – was threatened with becoming dysfunctional.

* * *

Sofia was a city of contrasts: it was both deserted and overpopulated, asocial and over-social. Its public parts were greying while commercial Sofia was staging youth, unscrupulousness and vibrancy: in the last ten years the city has visibly become richer and prettier in a peculiar, ‘point-like’, piecemeal way. At least in its central part, Sofia began to look like a European capital – even though various objections can be raised against the aesthetics of its prettification. Parallel with the symbolic defeat of panopticism, the city became a stage of a neoliberal excess which, parallel with its extremes and transgressions, renovated it in a molecular way, at each point of urban space (a typical example of this were companies which, for the sake of their commercial image, would repair the whole building whose ground floor they rented, advertisements which renovated facades and blind walls, private shops which repaired the doors and windows of the building they were in, etc.).
But even the acts of commercial charity did not exclude, along with their main meaning, their additional meaning: although this was not their purpose, they demonstrated that the municipal and state authorities were not doing their job. For example, Sofia’s public gardens were repaired and renovated by various private companies and banks which, of course, used this act of charity to promote themselves. Thus, the sign ‘Renovated by…’ appeared on benches, children’s slides and climbing towers, tree trunks and memorial plates – entirely fair signs naming the sponsor and indirectly suggesting to taxpayers that the municipal authorities did not have money for that for which they ought to have.
Another example: many pavements in Sofia are still repaired ‘piecemeal’ by companies which want to mend, entirely reasonably, ‘their stretch’, i.e. the slabs directly in front of their shop, restaurant, etc. The effect is a pavement that is not only zebra-like but also at different levels – reminding Sofianites who trip on it to ‘send their greetings’ to their beloved local government for the successive time.
Also zebra-like were many apartment buildings that were faced partly – by the owners who could afford it – with insulation materials. By them the casual observer could read what the financial status of the building’s various residents was, and how over the years people indeed managed to save some money and the facades slowly became evenly coloured.

* * *

What happened to public buildings, symbols and places also happened to public figures. The faces and voices of the transition, the heroes of rallies and demonstrations who wanted to consign communism to history with a ‘blue’ kick, were themselves consigned to history – ousted by new TV faces and stars on the media market. The images of the democratic agora were imperceptibly replaced by those of the visual market of sights and faces. In the new context, what was sold on the media market was overall personal charisma – not principled, left or right political positions. That is why it was not just the constantly visible journalists and media stars who scored visual rating points – so did politicians, who increasingly imitated the media stars. They wanted less to represent their electorates than to themselves be represented and shown as TV faces. The difference between political presence, political PR and television advertising disappeared and, with it, so did the difference between public and commercial behaviour (the market, including the advertising market, is a space of the private par excellence, as we know from Habermas). The visual rating of politicians became much more important than their political messages: politicians were increasingly ‘watched’ on television, and not ‘listened to’; everything that was not visible (on television) lost meaning, and even the circulation rates of the dailies fell drastically. This turned politics from a publicly visible occupation involving power, missions and benefits, into a media show: it is no coincidence that in the last two years two big TV stars (Volen Siderov from Television Skat and Boyko Borissov, the darling of all other televisions) have become, not without the support of the TV electorate, important political figures; it is no coincidence that football stars began playing with politics (Hristo Stoitchkov with chequered success, and Yordan Lechkov, whose success or failure is yet to be seen); it is no coincidence that some popular television ‘faces’ (for example, Slavi Trifonov or Niki Kunchev) have multiplied on the billboard-decors of all former public places in the city-screen. Famous in the recent past public figures, actors, TV journalists became commercial promotional faces or TV game hosts (Tatyana Lolova, Todor Kolev, Ivan Garelov), while chalga singers (Azis) became promotional faces of political campaigns – this was only part of the mutual convertibility between commercial, public and political visibility, an erasure of the differences between them. The same anonymous mechanism drastically cut the time of TV current-affairs programmes while increasing that of shows, competitions and commercials, and some programmes underwent transformations unthinkable a few years ago (a discussion programme hosted by a prominent Sofia journalist was transformed into a TV gambling game and she continued hosting it – now in vintage show-style). In addition to the huge number of TV games, entertainment and talk shows that offer more for the eye than for the mind, there are show parodies of public debates representing this fundamental civic genre as shrill out-talking and a comic verbal clash (‘Sblusuk’/‘Clash’ on bTV).

The Visible Criminal Aesthetics and Eroticism

In this context, another crisis similar to the crisis of the public sphere also hit the system supposed to safeguard the city’s security: the police and the judicial system. And, predictably, this brought crime out of the twilight zone and made it a spectacular, sensation-seeking visibility.
The reasons for that go back to Bulgaria’s and Sofia’s socialist history. Today sociological surveys show that in the 1970s and 1980s Bulgaria’s sports schools produced approximately sixty or seventy thousand heavy athletes (mostly nationally-emblematic wrestlers, but also boxers, weightlifters, judoists, karate players, rowers and others) who lived even back then a peculiar, secluded, isolated and excessively hierarchised clan-like life as if in training for the future gangs – wholly dependent on their coaches and developing an excessive loyalty, bordering on self-sacrifice, to the figure of the ‘boss’. After the changes the former athletes, who suddenly lost their jobs and their national athletic prestige, were recognised as a strong potential power by particular persons from the former secret services – and were quickly organised into two private armies which outnumbered the diminishing official Bulgarian army: one of crime and the other of private security guards. It is precisely these new armies of privatised violence (on which the State had lost its monopoly) that crawled out of the shadows and took over the public stage: they visualised physical aggression.
Every other week saw execution-style killings in the streets of the city, including in broad daylight, before the eyes of children and teenagers. It was as if they wanted to make fun of the TV statements by the chief of police and the interior minister who were trying to persuade viewers that crime had been brought under control: even as they spoke gangs fought and shot each other in the streets, smashed up discotheques, conducted punitive operations, beat up innocent bystanders and witnesses to intimidate them. In other words, this was not merely functional but also symbolic violence which, moreover, deliberately strove to occur in a regime of aggressive, universally valid visibility. Crime did not isolate itself in special, criminal areas of the city but consciously marked, through spectacular operations, also the affluent, prestigious and everyday spaces of the city (as people in Sofia joked, the Strelbishte [Shooting Ground] Quarter was living up to its name). With the exception of the top masterminds of crime, who are always invisible, all ‘middle-level’ crime bosses sought theatrical symbols of their indiscriminate power. They moved around in inconceivably expensive limousines, with huge crowds of bodyguards, they owned and inhabited expensive hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and discos in central Sofia, they gave them aggressive names and emblems, they were authoritarian feudal lords in these fiefs that were totally beyond police control.
In streets and corners, in cafés and clubs, the lower-ranking order-takers – ‘wrestlers’ and moutri – visualised and flexed muscles and bodies. When they did not strut around dressed in their tracksuits, they drove their western cars with tinted glass windows (even though tinted glass was expressly prohibited by the traffic police). Their obligatory style of driving was such that ordinary drivers were forced to give them right of way under threat of being beaten up; they would park in the middle of the road, and ignore all traffic signs and speed limits. They had other visual, nouveau-riche symbols as well: obligatory designer-made casual dress, sunglasses, a heavy gold chain around the thick neck, mobile phones (which were still rare at the time). But their proudest symbol were their own, somewhat over-ripe bodies of heavy athletes, walking mutants parading unthinkable muscles, necks and bellies in the streets of Sofia. This bodily-aggressive style of behaviour was flouted before the eyes of ordinary people as it was designed to win prestige, to be visually represented as the only possible model of a career and success, to make the others feel – if we use a term beloved of the moutri themselves – ‘trash’. Incidentally, it succeeded in many respects. The first one was that it became a socialisation model: the ranks of the socialist heavy athletes are now being constantly filled by boys who take anabolic steroids, build biceps and triceps at the gym, and wear thin metal chains around their bulging necks, dreaming that one day they, too, will become thick, gold and criminal. The second one was that it succeeded in becoming a model of erotic attraction as well: girls suddenly found huge athletic bodies very sexy. A specific male-female silhouette of the transition emerged, a silhouette that could often be noticed in clubs, chalga discos and restaurants in Sofia: a young fashion model, the product of cosmetic surgery clinics and solariums, stepping out of a black jeep as big as a tank, and next to her a ‘wrestler’ with a one-inch forehead, tracksuit and beer belly. Pliant and anorexically beautiful, she steps and sways flirtatiously alongside the trundling troll: while making movements as if on an imaginary wrestling mat, he condescendingly allows her to kiss him gently on the cheek, and slaps her bottom before the loving couple walk into the relevant super-club.
But organised crime had another image that was much more powerful than the erotic one. If the latter aspired towards ‘normalisation’ and became a common bodily aesthetic for ordinary people as well, the image in question needed to be extraordinary and shocking. And of course, visible, super-visible – focusing all terrified gazes. This image was that of contract killings. Since 2000 alone, there have been 155 of them – it is not for nothing that they have been defined as ‘execution-style’ or ‘demonstrative’. Through them the power of organised crime chose to operate in a regime of demonstration instead of in its usual regime – of hiding, darkness, invisibility. They took place in different parts of Sofia, without a clear geography and spatial distribution. In other words, what is supposed to be in the dark by definition – crime – projected its own visual symbols in the space of Sofia, imposing their scandalous visibility. And succeeded, for some time at least, in imposing them as bodily, socially prestigious, socialisation and erotic models.
Unpleasant as it may sound, this was actually only the other side of another visibility – that of sickness, poverty, old age, hopelessness. As noted above, the centralised modern polis has its techniques of interning such phenomena beyond the line of visibility. Whereas in addition to wrestlers, moutri and prostitutes, Sofia had suddenly filled with homeless people, beggars, old people rummaging in garbage cans, tramps, cripples, abandoned children sniffing glue, young drug addicts which the socialist capital had declared to be non-existent. Unlike that of the wrestlers, their visibility was not productive; they had no chance whatsoever of producing any symbols or social models.
But the return of what had been outcast by the socialist city, its aggressive ubiquitous visibility (as well as that of violence, of sickness, weakness and marginality), suggested something more general: for better or for worse, Sofia of the transition was incapable of controlling its outcasts in a modern, panoptic way. Nor did it succeed in hiding them behind their own phobic doubles: the realities were penetrated by phantasms and simulacra. Thus, Sofia proved incapable, if we use Deleuze’s expression, of imposing a form of conduct by distributing in space. It proved to be a city that was incapable of using its most important tool – spatial policy by which it moves people and imposes forms of conduct on them.

Global, National, Local

Bulgarian artist and researcher Luchezar Boyadjiev has found that as regards advertising, the vertical of the urban environment has become the arena of a struggle and spatial redistribution of three different social aesthetics. The first one may be defined as neighbourhood aesthetics. It consists of crude, hand-made advertisements of small neighbourhood businesses seeking to attract clients from the neighbourhood: ugly plates with sloppy lettering, random notices with phone numbers on tear-off strips, photocopied ads, signs written in chalk on the front wall of houses. It dominates the periphery of the city and moves low above the ground, at the eye level of the potential pedestrian-client.
Its polar opposite is corporate advertising (Coca-Cola, United Colors of Benetton, Sony, Hugo Boss, etc.), which installs its expensive signs and giant panels on the roofs of the poshest buildings in the city centre: it is characterised by global design, gloss, prestige, high professionalism and spatial domination over all gazes.
Boyadjiev’s best discovery, however, involved the middle levels where the fledgling Bulgarian business displayed its billboards using a strange mixture of global and neighbourhood-populist devices. It advertised in a professional-designer way the ordinary patriarchal pleasures: eating, drinking and chatting. The middle of the spatial hierarchy of advertising was occupied by images of Bulgarian vodka, rakiya, sausages, mobile chatter (one popular advertisement of a mobile phone operator went as follows: ‘Chit-chat chit-chat: I talk two hours more!’).
Here I claim that Boyadjiev’s discovery can be generalised: it describes not only the vertical but also the horizontal topography of the images of the city (as we have seen above, different layers and concentric circles of the global, the neighbourhoodly and the national contrast with one another in a similar way), in which seedy cafés are next door to luxury restaurants and chalga clubs owned by gangland bosses.
It can be seen on the channels offered by Bulgarian cable TV operators, which not only connect every Sofia heart to the BBC, CNN and Eurosport but also offer, along with Channel 1 of Bulgarian National Television, several chalga-music channels (on which even centuries-long national-purist bans are no longer existent and singers are allowed to sing in ‘Balkanian’ – in Greek, Serbian, Romany, Turkish…) as well as private televisions rife with pompous programmes about ‘all the Bulgarians together’, ‘the glory of the Bulgarians’, ‘history’, ‘memory’ and the like.
With a dose of comic hyperbole, one may claim that even the Bulgarian visible faces divided by this principle: Euro-commissioners and MPs/rabid nationalists and chalga-populists.
Without any hyperbole, on a literally visible plane, one may point out places in Sofia where the hierarchic stratification of the different aesthetics was confused, producing visual conflicts and comic effects rather than clear spatial distribution of the visible cultural and social layers. The visual grammar and stylistics described by Boyadjiev outline the general tendency at the time, but the mistakes, exceptions and confusions that were at odds with this tendency well-nigh prevailed: Sofia had not yet learned properly its own spatial-visual language, and the global, the national and the neighbourhoodly intertwined in typically local pastiches and undesirable urban self-ironies.
At previously ordinary Oriental corners there appeared McDonald’s, KFC and assorted Burger kings, Happy, Jimmy’s, Pizza Hut and other outlets which, however, faced competition for the same places from assorted Bulgarian restaurant chains with non-Bulgarian pretensions – such as Miss Kapriz, the Bulgarian-Italian Mamma Mia, the Sezession-style Before and After, the techno-designer Ugo, the post-modern-socialist Checkpoint Charlie or the less pretentious Divaka (The Savage; starting out as a subcultural ‘den’ with a charm of its own, the latter grew into an entire chain, initially in a folksy aesthetics and later in the cosmo-aesthetics of globalism). Almost next door to Chinese, Indian and Turkish restaurants, tearooms and Oriental salons, Sofia also provided niches for restaurants with proud or intimate names, such as Bulgari (Bulgarians), Sitè Bulgari Zaedno (All Bulgarians Together) or Bai Gencho. The geography of names and styles was complemented by moutra or gay discotheques with ancient names like Neptune, Spartacus or Ajax… Next to crumbling facades of traditional Sofia apartment buildings, casinos dreaming of Las Vegas suddenly popped up, their doors guarded by an entire range of kitschy statues from the ersatz global repertoire: ancient Egyptian and Hindu deities, characters from the Thousand and One Nights, and Roman gladiators – materialised childish dreams of luxury, prestige and splendour of the Bulgarian neo-capitalist.
As I have written elsewhere, the commercial graphosphere of the city was governed by very similar principles – especially as regards the game of power, prestige and visibility between the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabets. Here I will generalise: the Latin alphabet obviously played the role of a global object of commercial desire, it was much sexier commercially. If you want your company logo to attract the gaze and caress the ear (even if below it stands a modest neighbourhood shop, pub or hairdresser’s) it must have a name reminiscent of the imaginary West: Lady, Prestige, Elite, Queen’s Club, FASHION Beauty Parlour. For its part, the Cyrillic lost some of its aura as a privileged writing system nation-centrically associated with the ‘native tongue, so fascinating and sweet’. Featured in corporate names, logos, notices, plates, etc., it played a subordinate, auxiliary role of something designed to inform and orient – the main functional messages to clients (‘Discount’, ‘In the Yard’, etc.) were in Bulgarian, usually in hand-written or home-printed Cyrillic characters. On the other hand, however, transliteration of foreign words in the Cyrillic or of Bulgarian words in the Latin alphabet was not rare: just as the central governmentality of the Sofia polis was breaking down, so was the power of the codifying (pronunciation, spelling, transliteration, etc.) norms (one could see funny inscriptions like Дейта ком or Fasticu). The funniest of all were the crypto-titles: in strange words with Latin letters and a Latin sound, the trained Sofia eye would decipher the names of family businesses (KRISMAR = Kristina + Maria; N&S = Nenov & Son; NIKMAR = Nikolai + Maria; MITEX = Mitko + Ex).

Conclusion

At the beginning I discussed two different regimes of visibility. The first was the panoptic modern city-machine striving towards rationality, functionality and transparent, total governmentality. It transforms the constructive principle into a real structure of the city while using it as its emblem reproduced in an entire spectrum of different urban images: from the straight streets and visible infrastructure to the simple geometric and functional architecture to the images of progress and the symbols of centralised political and cultural power concentrated in the city centre. In this regime, the politics of invisibility is logically directed at that which eludes central, modernised power; the urban authorities begin to imprison, intern and drive out of the city everything that cannot be made rational, functional and normal.
The other regime, that of the postmodern megapolis, stems from the loss of this type of visibility. From a ray and demiurge of the city, the abstract Eye of power which observes, builds and governs the city according to rational principles, breaks up into countless eyes, into an unattainably diverse and often ‘irrational’ mass of individuals and perspectives: passers-by, private individuals, flaneurs, dealers, entrepreneurs, advertisers, tramps, children, ethnic minorities, etc. These scattered subjects are both producers and victims of the city’s visual aggression: they are swamped by heterogeneous, fragmentised images, they are overburdened with visual information, they are tempted by advertisements, they are scandalised by erotic and shocking images – they live in a ‘vortex of representations’. The city loses its rational wholeness and visibility, blurs its boundaries, becomes porous and open to the global visual flows. In this second regime, the politics of invisibility acquires paradoxical features. Urban space continues to produce traditional shady and shameful niches and ghettoes within itself, but it no longer hides them directly (i.e. it does not make them invisible by traditional modern techniques, such as internment, imprisonment, segregation or normalisation). It produces invisibility through excessive visibility. Deviant individuals, groups and places are overshadowed by their own simulations which constantly substitute the image industry: they are hidden, made imperceptible behind media clichés about them – sensational news, scandalous rumours, action and horror stories.
We have seen that this politics of ‘sensational invisibility’ also applies to the city’s rational infrastructure: the latter is no longer interesting as a perfectly functioning constructive principle, it is interesting only in its advertising or catastrophic aspect – for example, when it is a threat to urban life. To generalise, instead of the images of its constructive urban structure, the late-capitalist megapolis prefers to display the spectacle of its phantasms – in their entire spectrum from seduction to fear. Which is another way of saying that the once rational visual regime has now become irrational. The sale and consumption of ‘trans-rational’ images has substituted rational panopticism; the staged visibility of subconscious emotions and passions has replaced the ceremonious emblems of demiurgic reason.

Here I have reduced things to two abstract and ideal models in order to ask myself once again: Where between them does the visual production of present-day Sofia belong? What is its regime of visibility/invisibility, how is it connected with the social, political and economic realities of the city?
The materials and analyses collected and produced by the Visual Seminar suggest that Sofia is a peculiar hybrid between a modern, totalitarian, and postmodern city – and offers the eye a historically dynamic, ‘forbidden’ mix of different visual regimes which, moreover, are capable of ‘hiding’ each other.
Media theorists classify images and visual conflicts into several zones: zone of excessive visibility, zone of normal visibility, zone of low visibility, zone of invisibility, zone of deliberate concealment. We will see that in the case of Sofia they are in a peculiar relationship of mutual tensions and intertwinements; this does not allow one to describe them very distinctly because they intersect in unexpected ways – for example, at the core of excessive visibility lie blind spots, and some phenomena become visible only in comparisons, contrasts and visual tensions.

2.1. Conspicuous Sofia: The Zone of Screaming Images

These are the series of images by which the diverse urban subjects as well as the city in its problematic entirety want to represent themselves; images which the potential observer must in no way miss. They insist on being at the centre of the field of vision, at the centre of the city and at the centre of the stage, and with their conspicuousness make the normal, inconspicuous sights difficult to see or even invisible – the latter now require special focus, a change of the Gestalt and attention of the eye that are different from the automatic ones.

Unlike the postmodern megapolis in which global commercial imagery exercises unobstructed, established power, there have been several such focuses, several monumental series of aggressive, conspicuous images in Sofia in the last fifteen years. Their dynamic can be described as a transition from the visual regime of civic liberalism to that of market liberalism.
In the first case, the city made visible its political life or, more precisely, a paradoxical moment in the latter: the ‘velvet’ revolution. The source, producer and consumer of images was a collective, theatricalised subject: the People-made-up-of-free-individuals, which staged and celebrated itself in its newly won sovereignty. In visual, verbal and spatial codes of the city, it played out the Grand Narrative of the velvet revolutions centred around the Drama of the Two Modernities: the victory of the liberal, non-violent and individual Modernity over the collective and totalitarian Modernity. This political urban spectacle still contained a panoptic moment: the visual production of rallies and demonstrations still presupposed a unified urban ‘stage’ and a unified Eye of power that may be attacked, humiliated and scandalised. That is why this visual regime was hybrid and transient: through scandal and carnival, it made visible for a short while precisely the totalitarian features of otherwise non-totalitarian Sofia.
We have seen that this visuality was slowly ousted and then dominated – even obliterated completely – by another wave of aggressive, conspicuous urban images: the commercial ones. The images of lively civic spontaneity were replaced by those of well-regulated commercial production: commodities replaced political actors. Sofia seemed to be turning successfully into a megapolis: fighting for public places and the gaze were not protesting and dancing popular masses but a chaotic multitude of aggressive advertisements, billboards, logos, signs, banners, avalanches of posters, flyers, specially disguised facades, expensive shop windows, erotic pictures behind which were all sorts of social subjects  – firms, holding companies, patriotic circles, small enterprises, Buddhist associations, politicians, global corporations, youth organisations, separate individuals, family cooperatives…. The new images demonstratively conquered urban space, ousting and overshadowing all others: this was no longer a city in which a central power could ‘engineer’ and discipline social space from its panoptic centre, but a place where divergent lives, scattering economic initiatives intersected in confusion, a Babel of perspectives and interests. ‘The people’ and its contiguous mirror, central visual-governing perspective had fallen apart: the time of individuals had come. Sofia’s variegated stage design no longer showed a consistent plot and dramaturgic unity, but dispersion, conflicting multiplicity and diversity; it staged divergent entrepreneurship and commercial aggression.

In fact, as usual, even in this chaos there were difficult-to-see structures. At that, some of them were unspecific, global and megapolitan, while others were specifically Sofian, telling of what was peculiar to this city.
Global was the consumer utopia that served as a framework for the chaotic abundance of commercial images. The sea of advertisements that swamped Sofia was a celebration of a new global lifestyle, that of oversupply and of happy and unobstructed, universally accessible consumption represented both as a dream and as a norm. The serious power of this ‘dreamed-of norm’ in Sofia is evidenced by the disappearance of its Other: the glossy-advertising visual layer stages only the heroes and narratives of consumption; absent from it are not only the images of misery and poverty but also the images of labour and production, of industry and technologies. In addition, the new imagery – albeit for seductive, and not for disciplining reasons – likewise prefers panoptic places; commercial pictures came to dominate all possible points of visibility: the centre of the city, the intersections, the spaces along highways, the blind walls visible from a distance, the high perspective of roofs, i.e. all places from which the environment can be controlled and manipulated.
If things had not had a specific Sofian context, we could have concluded that this was simply a sui generis arrival of globalisation in Sofia. From the mid-nineties to the present, the advertisements of the big international companies have been mixing successfully with the emblems and pictures of the local business of various neighbourhood and family initiatives: we have seen that Luchezar Boyadjiev has analysed the spatial hierarchies of this mixing. However, the very fact that it took the eye of an artist and analyst to make this discovery indicates that to the mass eye, these asymmetries and hierarchies remain invisible, that they are undistinguishable in the motley chaos. To the mass eye, the global advertising images simply blend in with the boundless diversity of neighbourhood companies, squat shops, family initiatives, small stores, pavilions and stalls in the street. To put it in spatial terms, what comes from the ‘outside’ is mixed and confused with what is born ‘from below’; because of the visual overabundance, the global is submerged into the local. The overall impression is horizontal: of abundance, colourful diversity and chaos successfully hiding the big money, high technology and commercial calculation behind the global corporate advertisements. This lends them an intimate, human touch, making them part of the overabundant and self-generated visuality.
The result is a powerful neoliberal message: everything that is offered to the eye is natural. With a specific commercial romanticism, the Sofia visual environment wants to persuade the observer that even when advertising Coca-Cola or Samsung what is actually involved is something authentic: not globally managed oversupply or well-calculated advertising strategies, but an immediate elemental force, a self-generating life that represents and expresses itself.

* * *

Parallel with this ‘authentic’ commercial focus of aggressive, conspicuous imagery, Sofia had (and still has) another one as well. Something else also demonstrated itself aggressively, even arrogantly: the criminal world. I have described above how its images dominated the city – maybe not on such a mass and everyday scale as the commercial ones, but not less aggressively, not less encompassing the entire space, without a special urban topography of particular criminal districts and places. With a dose of overstatement, one may claim that the criminal world advertised itself through execution-style or demonstrative killings, through direct and frank violence, bodily style and symbols of richness. And in the shiny expensive cars the symbols of happy consumption and the criminal way of life merge.
Thus, the zone of aggressive visibility produced a multi-layered message as a result of the association of several series of images: of the global and of the neighbourhoodly, of the metaphoric commercial and literal criminal aggression. Very different in their content, they proved quite similar in their aggressive display and demonstration, which makes them compete for the viewer’s attention, ousting everything else. The specific Sofian visual regime must be sought precisely in the proximity, intersections and hybridisations of these series of images: the ‘authentically’ commercial and the criminal. It could be called inverted panopticism: it is not that an invisible power observes everybody, it is that everybody – including those who must be in the dark by definition – wants to be seen, aggressively imposing their own images. On the plane of content, this regime has a basic ‘philosophical’ message: its intertwined images imply that the ‘live life’ of the market borders daily on the ‘dangerous’, manly life outside the law, that the two are equally worthy, equally without an alternative, equally triumphant and vital, equally capable of representing attractive lifestyles. It says that commercial enterprise and crime are in fact two sides of one and the same thing: of total freedom, indiscriminate enterprise, ingenuity, boldness, which will stop at nothing. That in them is concentrated the most important thing, the criminal-market eros that dominates the city: a criminal-commercial, diverse eros whose images dominate the city.

Visible Yet Invisible

The aggressive imagery pushed normal visibility into the zone of that which was difficult to see. Many urban images and many urban practices did not seek such a brutal effect: they simply co-existed side by side in an incredibly colourful picture, creating – if they happened to be noticed – absurd, often comic, contrasts. In such a regime – of ousted visibility – were the city’s various historical layers, which co-existed side by side and mingled together, being indistinguishable to the untrained eye: a mosque next to litter-strewn Roman ruins (near a glitzy restaurant called Ruini/Ruins) in the vicinity of a newly built masterpiece of Sofiyanski and sculptor Georgi Chapkunov, near dilapidated public baths in Neoromantic national style, opposite the converted into a supermarket Central Hali, behind which is the Synagogue – crumbling samples of socialist architectural modernism. I have already noted how the neighbourhoodly and the global existed side by side, just as totalitarian memorial plates stood without any problem next to advertisements of Flirt Vodka and the monument to Vassil Levski rose opposite a billboard displaying the bare bum of transvestite chalga singer Azis. The untrained eye could mistake the transgressive contrasts from the conspicuous zone for the normal colourful diversity from the ‘normal’ one: and the political and aesthetic nostalgia for ‘order’, which gripped some critical observers, could be directed at both without distinguishing between them. To free oneself from the power of the aggressive commercial-criminal images one needed distance and the critical ability to change one’s perspective, to ‘switch over to another Gestalt’ – then Sofia’s visual codes would begin to reveal other things as well.
One didn’t need a special ‘switchover’ to guess that the demonstrative nature of the killings made visible also the weakness of local government, the lack of modern urban virtues like control, oversight, driving the criminal world back to the dark spaces, a functional police force, etc. Such a ‘switchover’, however, was necessary to realise that local governmentality had lost something else too: weak in a functional respect, it was also suffering from a loss of eros and image.
What was symptomatic here were the ‘visual metaphors’ – that is to say, the mode of transfer of the dominant visual code onto other realms. To be truly visible, political figures had to disguise themselves in this dominant code: to dress up as daring and vital heroes of capital. This became especially obvious during the last mayoral election campaign, and later during the term in office of Boyko Borissov as mayor of Sofia. He had precisely such ‘credentials’ and, moreover, his PR team had perspicaciously built his image using models that belonged to the sphere of non-institutional, commercially aggressive, transgressive and ‘live’ aesthetics. Everything this mayor did was represented as ensuing not from the power of his official institutional position but as the personal, risky initiative of a ‘resourceful’ man, a man ‘like us’. As if he was a hero from a Western movie in a world outside the law, he had to impose, all alone, ‘justice’ despite the fierce resistance of bureaucrats and corrupt public officials: his power was that of an entrepreneur and a fighter, not of an administrator. He was a self-enterprising and self-made mayor who did not follow the rules if they did not suit him, but nevertheless ‘got things done’ (here we are talking about his media image, not about how good he was or wasn’t at getting things done in reality). In sum, the image of the city mayor, personifying the city’s political and administrative power, was modelled on the laws of commercial (aggressively commercial), and not political imagery. The political power in the city did not trust its traditional emblems (involving central administration, procedures, observance of the law, authority, rational principles, control, etc.) and dressed up in the images of the visual regime of power: it wanted to look like a ‘businessman’, ‘cool guy’ and ‘moutra’ rolled into one.
 
By this Sofia’s visual regime, too, demonstrated the retreat of the political under the onslaught of the economic: keeping in mind, however, that both terms are used here in the broadest possible sense. As we have seen, the ‘economic’ encompasses not only the field of commercial exchanges regulated by laws and rules, but also all sorts of initiatives, appropriations, uses, adjustments and games on the verge of that allowed by law: in other words, this is a conventional term for the total sphere of unregulated uses, which does not distinguish between businessmen, ‘resourceful guys’, and criminals (by the way, it is no coincidence that ‘criminal’ and ‘businessman’ have become synonymous in the Bulgarian press).
In other words, Sofia, similarly to all contemporary megapolises, preferred to make visible not urban order and rationality but the phantasms of its residents: but these phantasms differed from the global ones in a specific way. They were a hybrid which attested to the totally unconstrained freedom of the ‘economic’ that spilled over into other, usually prohibited, zones. A phantasm of ‘all-round uses’ – of bold, risky and transgressive initiatives, of a ‘live life’ without limits and regulations, in a motley chaos without a city god and master, where ‘the resourceful guys’ will make it. By virtue of its own phantasmatic logic, this dominant message was associated not only with images that celebrated the new, neoliberal cowboys but also with images that – contrary to the typical Western movie! – gleefully ‘violated’ and abused the different variants of order: from advertisements that played with porno-imagery and outraged the sense of public decency to advertisements that caused physical revulsion. In other words, the city’s visual regime celebrated the fact that rules are ridiculous, that ‘everything is permitted’.
Viewed from another perspective, however, this phantasm reveals specific tensions between ‘own’ and ‘foreign’. We have seen that the global consumer utopia had a ‘Latin’, western profile – the happy consumers on billboards and in advertisements consumed non-Bulgarian goods, brands and lifestyles: the luxury, sophisticated style of the material and spatial environment, the expensive cars, outfits, and even the landscapes and female beauty of the models in them were made by leading international designers; they represented dreams of Mercedeses and Armanis, Rolexes and the Seychelles. The city staged a poverty of the imagination, bestowing seductive power to global, i.e. non-Sofia, phantasms. But these images of global consumption intertwined with Bulgarian and Balkan ones precisely in the zone of practice, upon their utilisation and use: there they mixed with the familiar, all-permitted, criminal and transgressive, becoming intimate and ‘authentic’.
Such hybrids maintained a stable division in the structure of the phantasmal image offered by Sofia: while the commodities, quality, style, genuine brand marks were on the side of the imaginary West, the various tricks, appropriations, intimisations, pranks, scandals and simply practical uses without rules were on the local, native side. The city played out a semi-visible self-colonial game in its visual regime: while it allowed global-foreign phantasms and dreamed of them, it also dreamed of a small local place ‘outside the law’ in which the foreign luxury and wealth could be used in an own specific way, without rules, in defiance of all regulations.

This central west-eastern phantasmal image which the city offered was of necessity uneasy, unpermitted and full of hidden tensions. This was obvious from its own ‘foreign-own’ structure but also from its complex relationships with the urban context, reproduced between the advancing luxury, moutro-Baroque construction boom and ‘asocial wilderness’. The aggressive advertising images with which Sofia represented itself were both in harmony and in disharmony with the context. On the one hand, the squalor, lack of regulation, the ‘advance of nature’, the architectural and urbanistic absurdities were in stark contrast with the imaginary western, harmonious and luxurious lifestyle. On the other, they were perceived as an authentic context of the homegrown shady business practices, crime, familiar uses, tricks and transgressions (the situation in Bankya, described above, illustrates this). In other words, this was a visual regime which both supported and renounced its context; there could not be easy and clear relationships in it.

This also determined the peculiar regime of relations with Otherness. Like the overexposed megapolises described by Virilio, the city was losing its modern wholeness, being penetrated by global virtual and tele-communications and crisscrossed by visual flows; it dreamed global dreams, spilled over into satellite suburbs and villages, transformed the relationship between the centre and posh residential suburbs, received and sent Eurocrats, international dealers and multinational migrant masses: in other words, its boundaries became porous and open to Otherness. But this openness was only the other side of the crisis of minimum government, deregulation and functional imbalances. That is because the city allowed Otherness also in the form of wild nature, destruction, dirt, chaos, traffic jams; Otherness could also take the form of a breakdown of civic functions and techno-functionality, such as crime, brutal corporality, violence and loathing. Otherness penetrated the city in the form of global civilisation and of a non-city, of collapse of civilisation.
In conclusion: Sofia staged itself as a private city without rules. The old centralised socialist capital was replaced by an unclear ‘site’ of many and unregulated private lives. As they were diverse, their visual emblems, too, moved in various directions: from the pole of entrepreneurship to the pole of crime, from the pole of life, vibrancy and authenticity to that of transgression and scandal, from luxury to misery to moutro-Baroque. This motley city simultaneously dreamed own and foreign phantasms, it staged polar opposites and contrasts, behind its live and colourful diversity lay social problems. Was this a transient image of something that was moving towards a global megapolis or is it a typical, purely Sofia-grown hybrid that will stabilise and become a permanent visual and social environment?
This question cannot have an analytical answer but only a practical, historical one.
That is why in conclusion, we will simply say: we’ll see.

Translated by Katerina Popova

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Last modified on Jan 11, 2021

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Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme