Luchezar Boyadjiev

Billboard Heaven (Notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism)

Billboard Heaven (Notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism)
title: Billboard Heaven (Notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism)
year: 2006
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Luchezar Boyadjiev
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

Did you know that Times Square in New York is the only neighborhood in the world where there are special regulations obliging tenants and landlords to put LED advertisement panels on the facades of the buildings facing the square? Did you know that on Times Square it is actually illegal to have a non-LED display? Did you know that Times Square has its own measuring unit for lighting, which is known as L.U.T.S. (Light Unit Times Square)? Did you know that on Times Square the average passer by is subjected to over 5000 advertisement messages per day1?

Did you also know that in Paris, for instance, it is illegal to put up a billboard or a neon display on the façade or on the roof of a building that is within 200 m radius of a historical landmark? And since in the center of Paris nearly every building is a historical landmark there are actually no such displays there. Did you know that in Istanbul there is no advertisement of alcohol or cigarettes, nor is there nudity on billboards, nor are there any casinos to be found? Did you know that in the center of Bucharest there are residential buildings whose facades are entirely covered with gigantic billboards and whose roofs are “crowned” with just as gigantic neon displays? Did you know that at present time in the city of Sofia there is hardly anything that is forbidden in the sphere of urban advertisement?

Well, now you know... All these things are part of the structure of what we call visual interface of the city; or visual urban environment; or visual aspects of the use of public space in a given city and so on. All these things are reflecting significant elements of how a community of people living in a certain city is constituted. At the same time all these things are defining the life of the same community by projecting messages and models onto people. The visual “matrix” of a city is that part of the living environment, which is at the same time the most enduring one – in as much as it is a multilayered “display” of traces from living in the city throughout the decades; as well as the most dynamically changing one in as much as it registers immediately even the slightest change in the economic and/or social situation of the city, not to mention the changes in the legislature, the rules and regula- tions, etc.

The visual interface of a city is actually the visible side of its economy, of the existing patterns of exchange of goods and services, even desires, within the specific human community. Furthermore, this is the very city itself; it is demonstrating itself for its own inhabitants and thus moulding them into a specific urban “shape” through one huge, all-encompassing eye/mirror. In the situation of a market economy the visual environment is, of course, especially active. In a certain sense, that is the indication for the existence and a display of the specifics of the market economy in a given city. Furthermore, I doubt that there is a city anywhere in the world without some kind of visual environment although for sure there are cities in the world without all that active market economy. One can say that the city as such is not possible without some kind of visuality and characteristic interface. It is a different question what kind it is and how it is being constructed.

However, the visual interface of a city is always a product of certain hierarchies that are reflecting the state of society. These hierarchies are visible in the interface of the city although they do not necessarily manifest themselves as such. But they are always present. The hierarchies are located along the axis of up/down, inside/outside, small/large, hand-made vs. machine-made, center/periphery, facade/backyard, commercial and business districts vs. housing quarters and neighborhoods, etc. Even though you might not know in detail the legislature governing the visual environment in a certain city, a simple walk around the city with eyes wide open for detail is usually enough in order to grasp something relevant. You only need to imagine that all that visual “shouting” is meant for you and you only; you need to imagine that every company, every business, every corporation and a neighborhood shop-owner wants you for a client, only you and nobody else; you only need to imagine what do you (or somebody like you) really need, or might need, from all that they are trying to push onto you; you try to imagine what of all that you can or can not afford to have; you try to imagine what will become of you if and when you already have all that... And you are almost ready to go... The only thing left for you to do is to “read” and figure out in what exactly way the visual “shouting” is being delivered to you – how is it “configured”; how is it organized stylistically; how does it fit in with the other elements of urban life and surroundings; where is the “shouting” located and how much it must have cost to have it made and installed on the place it is; what kind of explicit and/or implicit hints about your expressed and/or suppressed inner desires, attitudes and expec-
tations of life is it making by sending them through the visual channel of communication out into public space... – and there you are, you are already “crawling” up the stairs of the visual hierarchy in the city's interface.

In one way or another, all these hierarchies are originating from one basic hierarchy which however is the most hidden one. That's the hierarchical relation between the role of the political and the role of the economic factors (aspects) in the life of a certain city and/or society. In other words, this hierarchy is the actual configuration of the relation between these two sets of factors (aspects). Usually this configuration is clearer to grasp in a capital and/or a larger city rather than in the rural areas or in a smaller town. In any event, this configuration is always defining the specific use of public space. Wherever the political factors are overpowering the economic ones we have more regulation and a clear domination of public over private interest; wherever the economic factors are overpowering the political ones we have a lack of regulation and a clearly manifested domination of private over public interest. In both cases the configuration political-economic is a result of a specific kind of long-term development of society. However, more importantly it is the result of certain “negotiations” between the social agents, of a more or less active and conscious process of “re-negotiations” of the terms for the use of public space. Naturally, “negotiations” does not necessarily imply having an open and transparent process, nor does it mean that it is an active process, and least of all it means negotiations for the benefit of the public good... Nonetheless, there is always some kind of an “agreement” as to the terms for the use of public space even though it might be expressed through the lack of interest or the straight-forward apathy of the people living in a certain city.

That is why in New York, the city most closely associated with the words “business”, “capital”, etc. as well as, arguably, the city which is the most developed market/urban environment in the world, they have “negotiated” the existence of Times Square as a “ghetto”, so to say, of the advertisement “baroque” and a heaven of the gigantic LED (Light Emitting Diode) panel. That's why in Paris the hierarchy defining the interface of the city is turned upside down and the subway – this extremely well developed and dense underground network of stations, platforms, connecting tunnels, passages and entrances, has been given over entirely to the billboard. That's why in Paris again – the only city in the world where one has the feeling that the city has been conceived and built up throughout the ages with the only concern that it will be looked at (and that's why it has to be beautiful up to the tiniest detail), even the neighborhood bistro is handling its visual advertisement in the most aesthetically pleasing way. It seems that everything in Paris – from the sign for the public WC, through the balcony railings, all the way to the tent on top of the restaurant entrance has been conceived as mutually re-enforcing and adding up decorative elements. Not that in the public space of Paris there is, let's say, no nudity or sometimes flagrantly provocative visual hints that the moralistic eye may wish to interpret as pedophilia... However, even when the word “flirt” is used, unlike in Sofia, these are handled in good taste and with tact fully in line with the spirit of the local tradition of all encompassing but controlled (in the interest of the public) hedonism... 

I can not claim categorically that in Paris there are no visual oddities at all (visual irregularities, as I call them). In every city's interface there are samples that are not transparent for such a “crawling” gaze. On the contrary, in 2004 during my entire 6-month stay in Paris I could not manage to understand what the municipality wanted to tell me with one street sign positioned in front of the Conciergerie on Ile de la Cité – it was this rectangular sign on the sidewalk where an adult male figure is holding a child by the hand. The two figures are white on a blue background and they are crossed out with a diagonal red line. So, I just could not get it – they want me not to hold my child by the hand or what? Sometimes I thought they had made a mistake and instead of a dog they painted a child...

There are also samples in Paris of certain “sediments” in the city's interface that were probably quite upsetting for the people at the time they appeared. I have in mind, for instance, the hundreds of residential buildings all over the city whose main facades are incredibly narrow and sharp, often the width of a single window. I used to photograph these all the time and I was thinking that of course, these sharp-angled buildings have such strange ground plans only because the used plots of land had been formed by the severely steep diagonal crossing of two streets. But how did such a crossing come about and consequently the possibility for such an expressive construction and planning? Finally, I decided that these ever-present street crossings and sharp buildings are one of the products of the famous and drastic urban re-planning and re-designing of the central part of Paris in the period 1853-1870, which was carried out by the urban engineer Baron Haussmann. At that time he had Les Grands Boulevards plough radically across the city and one can still see the results. I do not think that at the beginning these buildings were liked very much by the Parisians just like later on for quite some time they were complaining about the Eiffel Tour. By the way, the mentioned urban re-designing of Paris was linked historically to the new phase in the development of French capitalism... Naturally, time was needed for “re-negotiating” the use of public space; and time was then needed for people to get used to the new urban facts; but even more time must have been needed for the “erasure” of those traces of the temporary domination of the economic over the political in the life of the city that Emil Zola wrote so eloquently about in his novels.

In New York there is also an “edgy” building, the famous Flat Iron Building, but I doubt it has ever offended anybody simply because the intersection of 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue and Broadway has always been as it is now and has always been where it is now... However, one can hardly claim the same for Times Square as it happened to be at the moment. This square's interface (as part of the NYC interface) is beyond any attempt for categorization along the axis of beautiful-ugly. It just exists as a very dense urban space which is conceived as media space. The access to the media environment of Times Square costs a lot of money; companies and corporations are fighting in competition and are paying huge sums of money from their annual advertisement budget (for instance, the communications giant AT&T is paying $ 627.5 million annually for outdoor advertisement, which however is only 2.03 % of the entire annual advertisement budget of the corporation). Companies and corporations are paying for the right to access the consumer. The thing is that in New York and Paris, for that matter, there are consumers and they have been around for decades, so there is something worth fighting for if you are a gigantic corporation...

The visual interface of Paris as well as New York is an interface of cities of mature and overly developed capitalism, market economy, relatively democratic and extremely efficient procedures. It's strange that unlike cities such as Sofia and Bucharest, which I relate provisionally to the early stages in the development of neo-capitalism, in Paris and New York (to name here but a few of the many possible examples) the ostensible freedom and flexibility of the market economy has produced over time clear rules for the arrangement of the visual environment. Obviously in these cities the political dominates over the economic unlike in Sofia and Bucharest where the situation is reversed. Yet another example is Istanbul, a city of mixed characteristics, where it would appear that by the force of tradition (read – more static, stable and conservative attitudes of generally cultural, historical and maybe even religious nature), the political seems to dominate over the economical in the visual environment of the city. However, in the last 10-12 years the visual environment of Istanbul is undergoing a radical transformation in the direction of becoming a media context thus manifesting distinct symptoms of confused visual hierarchies. I suppose the above means that the local economy is starting to produce consumers, something which one can notice in the city interface and which is one of the characteristics of the neo-capi-
talist situation.

Ten years ago one could not see billboards in Istanbul. There wasn't any whatsoever kind of visualization of the offered goods, commodities, services or of the hidden desires for something. The traditional market economy of the city, exemplified by the notorious Capali Carsi (The Great Covered Bazaar), used to be based on the direct human contact between seller and buyer, on bargaining and direct negotiation of the price where money was just a minor element of the pleasure of communication. This kind of nearly barter type of exchange had no use nor need for advertisement or visualization of the offered goods simply because everything that you could possibly wish to buy, you could see with your own eyes displayed directly in front of you on the sidewalk before the shop, always available to your eyes on a stand or on a piece of rug right on the pavement. The physical presence of the goods and the pleasure of bargaining made obsolete all visual mediators such as billboards, free standing rockets, banners, etc. It might also be helpful to remember that the tradition of Islamic culture has deeply grounded animosity for the anthropomorphic image. If there were any visual indicators at all, and there were many just as there are plenty of the same kind now, for the agent of economy these were predominantly letters, texts, fonts, etc. Istanbul was, and in many ways it still is, the city of the commercial textual sign, with all oddities of the semiprofessional styles and the wished-for direct contact with the customer.

The new element in the visual interface of Istanbul came out in the last 5-6 years and it is called billboard with human and other figures. Little by little, with the change in the economic environment, Istanbul became more than just a beautiful city with rich cultural and historical heritage as well as a dynamic present. Istanbul is becoming a “hot visual city” in all its parts and districts (ph. 13). The most visible change is that in many shopping areas the goods are disappearing from the sidewalks to migrate deep inside the shop's interiors. A store is no longer just a small shop but some kind of a boutique even when it offers only books, CDs and DVDs. The prices in these new stores are fixed while the store fronts and the shop windows are richly loaded with all kinds of advertisement units. In many cases the front window displays of all sorts of shops are entirely covered with figurative advertisement so that it is impossible to sneak into the shop's interior in order to check out what exactly is being offered in there (p.14). The mutual trust and the direct, almost physical, contact between seller and buyer that used to be the basis of the Istanbul economy, is now mediated through the wealth of visual advertisement – you see what's depicted on the image up front and then you try and guess what's probably there to be found inside. That however, is not only a fundamental change in the attitude to shopping, that's a change in culture, in the attitudes of people to each other, towards their city and living in the city.

There is something even more interesting. When you look closer at the arrangement/composition of some boutique's windows you might be startled – the particular goods are of course missing from the sidewalk, while at street level on the window display and behind the vitrine there are mannequins dressed up in selected garments from the shop. The real surprise comes when you look up to see that above the vitrine there are the same garments worn by real people (usually of smart European appearance) who are striking poses meant to provoke imitation, and are fixed visually into brilliantly photographed and printed gigantic billboards. It seems that the disappearance of the particular goods from the eyes of the customer must be compensated through the application of some additional visual measures that are meant to reinforce the customers' trust... And that's precisely why there is the doubling up of visual signs – the vitrine with a mannequin plus the billboard with fancy human figures. The goods are deep inside waiting for you in case you decide to enter into the shop but they are displayed at a distance and have clearly marked price tags. The “hot” bazaar context/situation of Istanbul shopping has been transformed into a distanced and “cold” exchange of money for goods of the global kind, something one can see in any cosmopolitan city around the world.

However, since Istanbul is not yet a city and a location of mature capitalism of the Paris or New York type, one can observe other interesting forms of transitory visuality reflecting the vibrating economic environment. As a rule these are linked to the “incestuous” relations between the local and the imported business, and most of all – with the ways these are visualizing their market presence while searching for access to the customers (I am not sure if these are consumers yet...) For instance, the gigantic billboard of Swatch, the Swiss watch-producing corporation (which in March 2005 I saw positioned above Istiklal Cadesi, the main shopping street of the fancy Beyoglu district), depicts a young woman who would otherwise be entirely naked if it wasn't for her dress that is made up of watches – the prod-uct, which the corporation is actually pushing at the customers. The problem of thevisual language of advertisement as a consumer of hidden clichés and mental attitudes typical for its target is here more serious than usual. In the shy urban visuality of Istanbul there is no room for nudity (it's a different question whether that's “by default”, or due to restrictions, or because of self-censorship by the advertiser...). On the other side, there is room for desires there, and those are mostly the ones of the male subject (after all Istanbul, as Sofia, is a Balkan city of patriarchal background). Maybe that's the reason why Swatch has decided to use this simple visual trick, which is tailor-used to both the local attitudes and conventions (rules?) – the only thing that stands between the male consumer and the object of his desire, the pretty girl, is the dress made of watches; so, if you want the girl you are going to have to reach out and grab the watch first... As a result there is the typical for the language and codes of advertisement transfer of desire from one, inaccessible object, to another object, which is quite accessible; by having the accessible object, one can hope to get hold of the inaccessible one at some point in the future...

Visual samples of this kind can be seen everywhere in Istanbul nowadays. Many of them are part of the advertisement presence of Coca Cola, for instance. But it is rather more interesting to observe how a local corporation, the Garanti financial group (otherwise known as the most important supporter of contemporary art in the city), is advertising the use of its new credit cards on billboards all over the city. In March 2005 that was a billboard depicting a young, standing up, blond-wigged woman who otherwise would have been completely naked had it not been for the dress, made up of bank notes, covering some parts of her body... There is a similarity here between the Garanti and the Swatch billboards. That could be entirely accidental but it is significant nonetheless. Just as significant and revealing for the transformation of the Istanbul economy (maybe Turkish economy in general) is the sign on top of a restaurant in Besiktas, the most European-like residential district in the central part of Istanbul, which is informing the customer that Swiss Kebap is offered inside... (I was wondering if that is not a business invention of a gastarbeiter come back home???). Or the quite revealing small house on the fringes of Capali Carsi (The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul), which obviously has a multiple function to fulfill – it has a free-standing architectural volume separate from all the ruins around; it is clearly a one-family house; the ground floor is a boutique/shop; the top floors are residential while their window sills are decorated with flowerpots and beautiful wrought iron railings, Paris-style like... That house is so wonderfully renovated and shiny, so much in contrast to its shabby surroundings that it is startling. One wonders if that example for a one-family business with a European kind of visual presence in the city is not telling us what the future of Istanbul economy will be like. In any event, it is quite strikingly contrasted to both the neighboring shops of the old Istanbul bazaar type, and to the posh boutiques from the new “global” wave.

I am tempted to cast these examples as the first signs of a certain local version of market economy, which is undergoing a process of globalization on its own terms and in one particular city. From the point of view of urban visuality I have every reason to define the kind of capitalism operating in Istanbul as neo-capitalism with the typical unsettled “rules” for the visual use of public space. The Istanbul economy has always been a bargaining economy but it is yet unclear whether it is a market economy and if it is, to what extent. It is even less clear if at the end the political will be able to overpower the economic in that city or not; and if “yes” then when and in what specific ways? It is yet unclear whether the urban space of Istanbul will acquire distinct European-kind of public specificity. That's still a city in a state of transformation just as much as are in transformation cities like Sofia or Bucharest. The difference is in the starting positions of these cities while the similarity is that their final points of destination seem to be identically global in substance. That's why one can see similar samples for “visual irregularities” (or, oddities) in all these cities and that provides me with grounds for comparison.

One can find such grounds everywhere in Istanbul even in the way the city, through its municipal authorities, is advertising itself... Or rather in the way the municipal authorities, an agent of the political in the hierarchical couple political/economic, are obviously not in a position (are not yet or no longer...?) to enforce the typical for the mature capitalist city dictate of the political over the economic – in March 2005 the façade of Tophane, a historical landmark building in a central location with a steady flow of tourists, was adorned with the following combination of neighboring billboards: a/ above the shop window of a store selling guns there was a huge billboard featuring 3D gun and bullets on a flat white background; b/ on the wall of Tophane at the same level above the street there was a gigantic horizontal billboard, which very self-confidently stated “Istanbul – A City of Love and Dreams”. The second was clearly identified as being sponsored by the municipal authorities. These could not possibly have missed the absurd combination of the two neighboring but diametrically opposed in their messages to customers and tourists billboards (unless, of course, we take the gun as a weapon of passion, if not love...) The Istanbul municipal authorities probably do not allow nudity and alcohol on the billboards but they do not seem to be able to handle guns... It seems that the private economic interest of the small gun shop next to Tophane is stronger than the public interest of a city which depends on tourism for its economic wellbeing... Or maybe that's a city, which while undergoing globalization in a new European way, is lapsing into a neo-capitalist situation and thus the city's visuality is demonstrating “irregularities” and anomalies in the hierarchy of the political/economic type?

The cases of Sofia and Bucharest are more clearly defined in their neo-capitalist characteristics. I should immediately state that from a visual standpoint this means that the economic aspects dominate the political aspects, that the private interest dominates the public good, etc. From the point of view of visuality as such one can claim that there is “capitalism” but there are also “capitalisms”. The kind of capitalism operating in Sofia and Bucharest, as well as in other cities that I have not yet have the opportunity to look at in the same way, is “neo-capitalism”. Thinking along these lines, it would be immensely interesting to observe what does the Chinese variant of neo-capitalism, founded on still functioning socialist ideology, look like? But – what is actually “neo-capitalism”? I am offering a working hypothesis, provided that I am neither a political scientist nor an economist. Let us say that I am talking about visual “neo-capitalism”...

“Neo-capitalism” is that kind of “capitalism” among so many others, which is originating in late socialism – as we knew it in the countries of the former Soviet Block in Europe. More precisely, neo-capitalism is grounded in the post-socialist situation and its main question – the re-distribution of public wealth (in as much as it was available and in the way it was available), accumulated before 1989. The resolution of this question is actually masked as a process to re-define the concept of “private property”, to secure its legal guarantees and fiscal fortification. There is a plan for the construction of neo-capitalism, no matter how ironic that may sound. In theory, neo-capitalism is constructed after a particular model – the model of the western European market economy and parliamentary democracy. In reality, neo-capitalism envelops according to its own logic and appearance of collapse while actually masking the hidden re-grouping of elites, re-distribution of wealth, entrenchment into new political and economic alliances, etc. However, the actual early stage in the development of neo-capitalism starts only when the process of re-distribution has ended in general and a country starts to implement measures along the lines of “stabilization” and “normalization” with the welcomed interference and under the observant gaze of powerful international institutions with economic and/or political profile such as the IMF, the EU, the World Bank, etc. We can only talk about neo-capitalism in its purest form after this process is channeled within the parameters of “negotiations for accession into the EU”; after the unavoidable introduction of strict monitoring, pressure for clear regulation of activities, for changes in the legislature and the economy, and once a very moderate level of prosperity is achieved. The early stage of neo-capitalism, at least in Bulgaria and Romania, would have to be over with these countries' formal accession into the EU. (Although, talking only for myself, I know that the early stages will be over only when the police in Sofia start giving away at least parking violation tickets to all those fancy cars that are illegally stopped right in the middle of the boulevard in front of the bar Planet Club in central Sofia on late Friday or Saturday night...) Thus neo-capitalism in the Bulgarian/Romanian version is defined, on one side, by the heritage of post-socialism, and on the other – by the pressing of the EU. Both these factors are inherent to BG and RO neo-capitalism – in terms of both origin and/or choice.

Neo-capitalism is:
A) capitalism without bourgeoisie2 – the old bourgeoisie had been destroyed while the formation of a new bourgeoisie will be needed one-two more generations who have grown up in affluence or at least in upward social mobility;

B) consumer society without consumers – the retired people are shopping in neighborhood garages constructed in socialist times that have been converted into small grocery stores; the young are strolling down the fancy Vitosha Boulevard in the center and sometimes shop in the boutiques; the rudimentary consumer middle class go to the Metro superstore and others like that but so far they are just piling up unnecessary reserves – only a few individuals have reached the stage where they shop by habit rather than by force of need while they are in the store anyways;

C) the city space has a visual interface where the economic (private interest) is dominating the political (public good) and that is expressed in the drastically visible hierarchies along the vertical axis (as in Sofia) or in terms of size (as in Bucharest) – the public substance (and use) of public space is highly problematic, there is only room there for vulgar hints and rude nagging demanding consumer identity from the city dweller;

D) the neo-capitalist city is a “visual paradise” for advertisement, or more precisely, it is a “billboard heaven” in terms of both the vast quantity of advertisement units, and the raffish promiscuity in the use of visual and semantic codes that are derived from the “dirty” subconscious of the city population, as well as financial cost – the public space and the visual environment of Sofia for instance, are currently the playground of huge business activity and many interests (not the least the interests of the municipal council and its members). However, the prices to gain access to the attention of the target/customer of the ad and the goods are ridiculously low measured up against the public good of the city and the needs of its people (I myself would have nothing against if the billboards in the city are twice as abundant and many times over more vulgar if only that would lead to such a high revenue for the municipality that it will fix properly at least the sidewalk in front of my building);

E) neo-capitalism is not so much about efficient production as it is about efficient “hooking up” and consumption; it is not so much about income and profits from production and exploitation, and even less so about advanced technologies and processes, neo-capitalism is mainly about “education” and even “installment” of the desire to consume – I think the most entertaining process to observe in the birth and development of this society is the birth of the consumer from the corpse of the sotz laborer and of the neo-capitalist businessman from the corpse of the apparatchik (high nomenclatura member);

F) the “surplus value” in neo-capitalism comes not from exploitation but from speculation – tax evasion and tax fraud, double accounting, abuse of power and influence, corruption, etc.;

G) in addition to the drastic contrast of the hierarchies, the visual environment in a neo-capitalist city is characterized by the baroque abundance and brutal stretching of metaphors and clichés, be that as these may be of architectural, visual, or semantic substance.

The most visible feature of the visual language in the advertisement environment of Sofia for instance (something for which Sofia is unique in comparison to other neo-capi- talist cities), is the super stressed vulgarity and overly abused eroticism of the visual and other messages that saturate the public space. According to the definition given by Alexander Kiossev in 2003 within the workings of the Visual Seminar project, “the image of the woman in the public space of Sofia is the image of a prostitute” (in Bulgarian “public woman”, which is the more formal word used for prostitute). The main characteristic of the Sofia visual neo-capitalism is the already mentioned drastic transfer of desire from one to another object. The presence of so much nudity and the hints as to the hidden (and not so hidden) “wishes” of the Sofia male inhabitant in the billboard advertisements of alcohol and other goods are actually a kind of admission that there is actually no serious and real consumer figure in the city economy (and country economy for that matter) – not everybody can afford to buy a new Mercedes Jeep but anybody can drink alcohol; not everybody can get a chic and sexy girlfriend but anybody can grab the frosty grape brandy or vodka bottle from the fridge... The visual nagging is sometimes in the sphere of the sexual contacts. That's when and where the ultimate transfer of desire from one to another object takes place. That's when and where the ultimate message of the advertisement environment is revealed – it's the implantation of a neo-capitalist life-style across the social spectrum – maybe I can't afford to consume (and live) like a rich man, but at least I can get a royal fuck anytime I want... how about that! So, we shall see...

The most obvious hierarchy in the visual interface of Sofia at present is the up-and-down hierarchy, as well as the city center – neighborhoods hierarchy, although even more revealing are the examples for mixing up of urban spaces when a glass covered corporate building would go up in the socialist-times residential area of the Mladost, Lyulin and Druzhba housing projects. The center of the city is dominated by the corporate emblem positioned high up on the roofs of the buildings (it's the same in Bucharest). The corporate emblem is shiny and overly abstract most often reduced to the corporate logo. It provides no exact information and in terms of semantics it is a-contextual, or rather – it is its own context without any visual connection or reference to the product offered by the corporation. The corporate logo is dominating and “managing” visually huge urban spaces. It is usually positioned at the very spots where the ideological slogans from the monumental propaganda would have been located before 1989. This kind of visual presence is a clear indication as to the exact subject holding power in the country. The most confusing sample for the above is the neon sign-advertisement for the Philips Corporation, which is positioned for years on top of a building that is otherwise known as The Pirogov Hospital for Emergency Health Care (ph. 39). In the absence of any information/indication as to the true public function/identity of this building and in the context of the presumed “power” of Philips over Pirogov Hospital (as a sponsor of equipment and so on), I call such samples “visual irregularities”. In Sofia these are plentiful and they serve me well to demonstrate the very substance of the problem in the Sofia urban interface. Such samples are a “reality show” kind of demonstration of neo-capitalism in action – the economic overpowering the political, the private interest overpowering the public interest, the confused signals for production and consumption, etc.

In the neighborhoods away from the city center, and also in the center at eye level, the dominating visual presence belongs to what I call, the “neighborhood logo”, which is promoting some small and/or one-family business operating in a given neighborhood and having the same range of economic efficiency. The neighborhood logo is very direct, it is located immediately next to the body of the client (city dweller) and it is rubbing itself into his/her eyes, clothes, and body parts. The neighborhood logo is commanding a space and visual range of 15-20 m radius. It is in effect a kind of visual “marking up” of territory in the neighborhoods much in the same way the stray dogs do. There is no distance between the neighborhood logo and the business it is promoting. The neighborhood logo is rude and lacks style, it is hand-made and simple but it is vital and vulgar in its directness. This kind of visual presence in the city is a clear indication for the actual level of consumption (as physical sellers and buyers, stores, prices, goods, available selection, etc.) within the market economy of Sofia.

The middle ground in the Sofia visual environment is taken over by a third type of presence in the city interface. That's what I call the Bulgarian billboard. It is a promotional agent for some local business with ambitions for national range of operation and impact. The ever renewable example for this visual layer are the billboards of the alcohol producing companies – the Karnobat Grape Brandy, the Biserna Grape Brandy, the X-taz Vodka, the Flirt Vodka, the Peshtera Ouzo Brandy, etc. The Bulgarian billboard has borrowed some characteristics from both the other two types: a) in terms of form – it is as shiny, as chic and attractive as the corporate logo, it is expensive, made through sizable investment of money, facility and designer resources; b) in its conceptual thinking and messages it is as vulgar and concrete as the style of the neighborhood logo, and it is playing around with the attitudes of the local average inhabitant of the city. In this sense the Bulgarian billboard is a phenomenon of the same type as the new kinds of neo-capitalist mass-culture popular music, the so called “pop-folk” or “chalga”.

As everywhere, in neo-capitalist Sofia the main objective of advertisement is efficiency. Efficiency is measured as the ratio between the investment (of creative potential and effort, production costs, fees and permissions, etc.) and the actual effect, which is the impact on the particular addressee/customer. The strange thing is that the example for the most efficient advertisement campaign in Sofia comes from the sphere of small neighborhood business. That's the “campaign” of somebody who has a local cell phone number 0888 873 1273 and who is “restoring cracked car windshields” in a garage somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, in a city of mature capitalism chances are that the person with a cracked car windshield will just get a new one in the proper auto repair shop – fast and cheap in most cases. In Sofia however, this advertiser has achieved the perfectly efficient advertisement campaign for the offered service, which is sought after by the numerous not-so-prosperous city dwellers (ph. 44). Without paying a penny of fee for location (the production cost is thus limited to typing up the text on a computer, printing out one copy, and Xeroxing the rest), this advertiser has pasted a lot of sheets of regular A 4 copy paper on every tree trunk along the busiest section of one of the busiest city boulevards (Bulgaria Blvd.) right in the center of town, on the stretch where in the notorious Sofia traffic jams, drivers spend at least an hour per day waiting for the green light. The text on the A 4 sheet of paper only gives the cell phone number and the shortest wording for the offered service. The paper sheets are pasted right at eye level so waiting on the outer line there is no way you can miss the message. Simple, clear, cost effective, at the right place for the right client – maximum efficiency! The only yet simpler and clear- er example in Sofia is probably the advertisement message painted on the side façade of a high-rise apartment block in the socialist-time housing project called Mladost 2 – the advertiser has only provided the number of his cell phone in huge letters... that's all. I guess that's the “everything for anyone” kind of offer but I might be wrong... The point is that such a level of efficiency is contagious and now the trees along Bulgaria Blvd. are covered with such ads. In 2003 I tried to copy this example too in my project “Hot City Visual” for the Visual Seminar which I will talk about a bit later.

The architectural environment of Sofia is similarly split in three layers although it is dislocated differently in terms of chronology – most often than not the new layering is imposed over or amongst the constructions from before 1989, or from before 1944, etc. The archi- tectural environment, especially the new office and residential buildings after 1989, are influencing the Sofia interface in a way identical to the effects from the corporate logo and billboard as a whole – they are the agents of a new consumer identity and life-style. As far as the visual structure of the Sofia urban interface is concerned, the new corporate office buildings with their mirrored facades are what the corporate logo is – distanced and out-of-context to the point of urban vulgarity and ugly disrespect for the rest of the city. Conceived by local architects for the needs of the local neo-capitalist agents and structures, these buildings are identical in spirit and presence with the Bulgarian billboard. On the other hand, the architectural equivalent of the neighborhood logo in Sofia are the products of the makeshift architectural activities such as garages turned into shops, and most of all the so called “crouch shops” – basements opening onto the sidewalks at ground level that are converted into shops with window displays resembling the structure of an iconostasis, the most unlikely semblance.

All these visual elements of the interface of Sofia, in spite of their unequal hierarchical status, are equally indicating the dominance of the economic over the political in the public space of the city. In my project “Hot City Visual”, which was realized in Sofia in the fall of 2003 as part of the Visual Seminar project, I tried to interfere into that part of the public space of the city which I was discussing before. My idea was to reverse the vertical hierarchy in the interface and to advertise the family “business” of a group of Roma people, whom I had known for over 15 years, in a corporate way and in the very heart of the city center. I was hoping that the reversal of the hierarchy corporate vs. neighborhood logo/advertisement will question the use of public space in the city and will trigger a debate and a process of re-negotiating the conditions for the use of this space. I hoped not only to provoke a reversal of the main hierarchy but also to secure, although temporarily, domination of the political over the economic in the visual environment and life of the city. I actually infiltrated the middle layer of the Sofia advertisement environment, the one defined as “Bulgarian bill- board” layer. However, everything in my project worked in reverse – the “Stefan's Brigade (and his sons-in-law)” billboard was installed on the central façade of the former royal palace (now National Art gallery) and it promoted a certain image of the Roma minority in the country (in reality the most underprivileged minority in Bulgaria), which by being entirely positive contrasted sharply with the hidden attitudes of latent racism in Bulgaria. Instead of using some hidden sexual attitudes of the average Bulgarian city dweller, I used something of his/her so to say, “dirty” political subconscious. At the same time, I was counting on another segment of that sub-consciousness – the feeling of optimism and the grinning faces of the characters from the billboard were meant to insinuate a level of prosperity of the advertised “business”; while the composition of the group as a whole was suggesting stability and reliability through the use of some visual clichés for the depiction of a patriarchal family where it is clearly visible who is in charge, etc.

It seems that at least on the level of the political climate at the time (right in the middle of the heated pre-election campaign for the mayoral office of the city of Sofia in October 2003) the action was quite effective in as much as some political leaders took the message of my action quite personally and aimed some angry accusations at the Visual Seminar – they thought the Roma related action is trying to mess up their election campaigns. One candidate in particular was impressed way too personally – I neither thought of nor remembered that the first name of the strongest candidate (and incumbent mayor, who also won the elections only to be investigated now for corruption, etc.) is the same as the first name of the main character from my billboard; I neither thought of nor remembered that the same politician has three daughters while my main character was surrounded by his three (out of four, actually) sons-in-law... The point though is that the substance of the project was received by the political elite “according to plan” – as a political rather than economic message, as an expression of public and political rather than private and economic interest.

On the other hand, less sophisticated Sofia inhabitants, in this case clerks from the municipal bureau for unemployment benefits took the advertisement campaign “Stefan's Brigade (and his sons-in-law)” quite literally – as a demonstration of private economic interest. In November 2003, less than a month after the action with the billboard, the actually unemployed (and registered as such) Stefan, the main father-figure character from the billboard image, went to the social security bureau for unemployed people in order to collect his monthly unemployment benefits. At first the clerk refused to give it to him and started a scandal saying “how dare you coming here after you had such a brilliant and rich advertisement campaign”, etc. (the project had been covered by the media quite widely and in depth). Horror... but Stefan held his grounds and got his dues by starting a counter-scandal with the argument that the clerk did not get the point of the artistic action at all, which was to be expected from somebody who has no experience of working with artists (unlike Stefan who was in the past a long time worker for the Union of Bulgarian Artists, which is how I came to know him in the first place).

Confusions... fully in line with the confused samples from the Sofia city interface and from my point of view – part of a debate just starting to come to the fore. In this case things turned out for the better for Stefan. Not so with my other candidate for advertisement within the context of the project “Hot City Visual”. That was the case with my neighborhood key maker, the quintessential example for a small one-family business in Sofia in so far as there is at least one key maker in each neighborhood in the city. My idea to reverse the hierarchic order consisted in placing the “corporate” logo of my key maker on top of the building of the “Pirogov” hospital in the form of a neon sign alongside, in the same size and with identical visual status to the sign of the Philips corporation already there in position of domination. It did not happen. It would have cost a lot of money and besides I did not see fit “sponsoring” some of the top level administrators-doctors in the
hospital who were responsible for permissions... It would have been easier and cheaper to fix some key lock for them as a type of “in kind” sponsorship instead of paying. However, nothing happened and the idea remained like a visual proposition or rather like a confusing provocation in neo-capitalist Sofia. Pity, because I think that the real co-existence of the logos of Philips and my neighborhood key maker would have been a perfect visualization of neo-capitalism in the city.

By the way, did you know the joke about that guy, a producer of nails in Jerusalem, who had some problems with the city authorities because of the visual codes he was using in the city-wide advertisement campaign for his product? Well, may be next time... there is enough material to think about in Sofia, Bucharest and many other cities as it is.

 

Notes

1. All factual references to the Times Square/New York situation are quoted from “A Consumer's Guide to Times Square Advertising” 2005, a project by Christine Hill, presented by Volksboutique and Creative Time, NYC.
2. This particular feature of neo-capitalism was pointed out by Olaf Nicolai in a conversation with me while we were on a pre-project trip to the city of Varna on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast in July 2004.
3. This particular example was pointed out initially by Dimitar Stoychev, advertisement manager, during the first public debate of the Visual Seminar titled “Do You See Sofia?” organized on July 3rd 2003 in the Sofia Art Gallery, Sofia.

Published in Articles
Read 321 times
Last modified on Feb 10, 2021
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