Irina Genova

The City as a Mobile Image / Ways of Moving and Sights / Walking as a Practice and a Passion

The City as a Mobile Image / Ways of Moving and Sights / Walking as a Practice and a Passion
title: The City as a Mobile Image / Ways of Moving and Sights / Walking as a Practice and a Passion
year: 2006
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Irina Genova
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

In recent years Sofia arouses the interests of property developers and urbanists, city historians and anthropologists, academics, different professional and civic associations. Projects about the city are launched. One of these projects was Visual seminar. In 2003 I took part in it in order to state my position. But how? The choice of means seems to be a choice between reflection and activism – in both cases there is the danger of utopia, of a situation in which the writing or the action can be inefficacious, they could have no impact on the particular circumstances. The reflective participation mobilizes knowledge, references, reasoning and at the end it is realized in texts like this one. Activism, whether it is artistic or not, boils down to a challenge to the city authority. This was the case of the public meeting with the mayoral candidates in Sofia with the slogan “Do you see Sofia?”.

“Do you see Sofia?” is a rhetorical question and an appeal, didactics and hope. Its skeptical reverse side is: “Will the miracle of “seeing again” save us?”. Perhaps the “blindness” for Sofia is the only chance to preserve the sense of sight. But I cannot walk in this city without seeing it, without perceiving it. In the changing images I search for the experience of a city, dynamics, social exchange, sights, the urban sense of nature. A longing for a city?! I am losing myself in comparisons.

The very practicing of the city, living in it, is already participation. Could I remain indifferent, to find refuge in images – in painting, in photography, in literature; to consider Sofia through exhibitions, memories, guides? This text is not about urban planning policies, about the aesthetics of architecture, about the history of park building or about the social diversification of living areas. In other times this could be the story of a flâneur1 or a flâneuse in Sofia. The narrated pieces of sights are about the practice of the city in motion, about my/our visual and perceptual daily life.

* * *

As I write Sofia is turning into a dump. The unsolved problem of litter processing seems to be bursting open like a fester in the city, it emerges as a disaster, an infection, a threat of epidemic and death. For a moment I consider the idea of taking pictures but then I give it up. Who would need these depressing sights which we see in our nightmares anyway? There is no doubt that we all see them, breathe them in and walk over them, we move among them.

* * *

I like walking, taking customary routes shaped by daily chores and taking leisure ones that are pleasurable because of changing views and because of the sense of sharing them. In the “interior” of the city the surfaces or what one walks on give a sense of cosiness or stress. Texture, colour, the sounds of steps, even the smells – in dry and wet weather – I associate these with walking in different cities. The yellow bricks – slippery and glistening in wet weather, the boulevard that is crossed slowly and with great care, are part of becoming familiar with Sofia.

I often go down Shipka Street. The pavement gradually erodes – I can sense this by the steps. I sensed a difference recently – in front of the Kodak shop and the café just before the crossing with Krakra Street the pavement became even and colourfull. In the central part of Sofia private property changed the pavements. “Rags” of color cobblestones have been rolled out in front of banks, restaurants, business buildings and the shops of big companies – the result is “patchwork in progress”. The way citizens walk has become uneven (irregular): dignified and harmonious in front of the buildings of businesses that are conquering the central areas, jagged and jumpy on the still municipal pavements.

“I cannot pay attention to the architecture because the pavements are dangerous for walking” – as a student put it when commenting on the subject of the city. Shall we suggest to the Municipality that signs reading “Watch Your Step!” could be placed in the streets of Sofia?

In the day when I wrote these lines I fell through a road patch of cobble-stones on the Patriarch Evtimii Boulevard, a road patch unexpected and unsuspected in the asphalt. I was trying to catch a trolleybus after having to run several times between the place where the mini van services stop is and the public transport bus stop.

I am trying to process the negative emotional effects of the experience by sharing them in a text, but in this case the text precedes/anticipates the adventure in a slightly frightening way. The discourse of the city falls through the “practising” of Sofia, through the trivia and risks of everyday life.

(It would be unjust to omit mentioning how incredibly lucky I was that none of my limbs was fractured, that none of my teeth broke at the encounter with the curb and that the weekend was coming i.e. I would not have to appear at the university with a freshly bruised face.)

* * *

I remember what I stepped on as a child. The pavements with two kinds of plates – small and large – where we drew lines and squares in order to play a game; the pavement of the big street with the trams (it was not replaced with asphalt until much later), the asphalt on the small streets between the blocks of flats (good for running). I remember the thrill of walking over the stone edges of ponds – the verdure on the one side and the water mirror on the other (watch out!). Walking/stepping is very different in the Old town in Plovdiv, irregular, palpable for the feet. The stone pavement that arrests our attention. It is the same there today – durability.

The most attractive is my memory of walking on sand – in the park between the blocks with red roof tiles the sand is changed every spring after the last snow. The park has its “furniture” – benches (they are put away in winter) and a fountain (it has a wooden hut in the cold season). Sand covered the alleys in all the parks until it was replaced with the ubiquitous asphalt at the end of the 1970s. Steps on sand in parks elsewhere, together with the comfort and perceptual pleasure, bring back childhood sensations. In the Luxembourg public garden I watch people passing by for pleasure while coming home from work. The rhythm of the different ways of walking is echoed in the crunching noises of dry or damp sand. They leave traces...

In the beginning of the 1970s I learn how to step differently. The pavements are chang- ing – the asphalt replaces the cobble-stones on a mass scale and is much better for my comfort in the bus. But the sand in the parks disappears as well and the mud enters my city experience. Because of all the building sites every day I have to clean my shoes as soon as I get to school. This necessity and habit haunt me even today – building sites are everywhere with no consideration for the pedestrians. Cracks in the asphalt appear again and again with every change of seasons or pipes and other installations. The old sidewalks cannot withstand the pressure of nature: they swell or fall through amid soil and roots.

* * *

In Paris the sidewalks are made of asphalt but the asphalt is different. I had not noticed it before but that time I had to move to a new flat and carry my luggage in a large suitcase. Taking a taxi seemed inevitable but friends convinced me that it was a long distance and the expenses were not worth it. “It's so easy to get there by bus.” (Très facile!)

Think about a similar adventure in Sofia. First of all, how would I lift the suitcase, how would I take it down and how would I drag it on the sidewalks? What an amusing sight (and sound!) for the people around! In that city, however, this everyday situation really proved to be taken into consideration and supported by the city “interior”. Every bus has a door with a platform on the level of the curb, and at crossing points the level of the sidewalks descends so that any devices on wheels can move easily (prams, wheelchairs, platforms with luggage, roller-skates). I moved to the new flat with my suitcase and without any effort or additional expense. I started seeing other pedestrians with suitcases, or pedestrians whose movement was obstructed by different circumstances – up to that moment I had not noticed them. I was thrilled that somebody out there, in this much admired but foreign city, had thought about and taken into consideration what would be a difficulty for me, while in Sofia where I live (and pay taxes) I always feel abandoned with my problems2.

* * *
The means of transport are an inseparable part of the urban experience. The noise of the trams (when you live in immediate proximity), the trams themselves, their colour and design, on the inside and on the outside, the speed of the changing views. The tram to the Knyazhevo area is a different memory (now I would say “in a retro style”).

The buses from the more remote parts “to the city” are less “city-like”. Particularly in terms of their design and maintenance up to the end of the 1990s. We are deprived from the views: the bus is always packed with people and the windows are dirty.

Toward the end of the 1990s a metro service appeared in Sofia. We went to see it – from the centre to the last stop and back. The practice of transport. The windows of the carriages are “blind” for the city. The design and “furniture” of the stations, the advertising billboards, the reverberating noises can be those of any city. (I imagine other stations – the glass cases of “Louvre-Rivoli”, the music in the metro stations in Brussels (1994), the artistic integrations (The Flying Angels!) in the newly-built metro line in Los Angeles (1999). The metro is speed, quick leaps from one space to another, “snippets” of a city whose connections remain invisible. The metro is a different sense for/familiarization with the city.

Traveling by metro means planning your time. Traveling by bus means “facing” a variety of urban motifs. A friend in Paris told me: “When I come back home at night, I prefer the bus – this is how I can enjoy the city.” The big windows, the whole bus, are clean and when the vehicle moves they become for one's gaze a moving frame for famous ensembles and unexpected sights.

Enough about Paris! I wish that I, too, could prefer the bus in Sofia...

* * *

During the last year Sofia reached the stage of transporting impossibility. It has not been foreseen that the city's population will reach 2 million. Cars, the vehicles of the mini bus services, buses and trolleybuses swarm from one set of traffic lights to the next. The area of “creeping speed” expands to the more remote residential areas. The speed of views changes too. When in a bus or a car I advance painfully along the Canal – the Perlovska River – from the mirror – and ship-like Business centre toward Graf Ignatieff Street, I have the opportunity to look at the buildings to the right and the alley to the left for a long time, and then at the beggars: children, disabled, women with babies. I can look at the surrounding vehicles, the people behind the steering wheels, their occupations and reactions, the passengers that are piled over me. All of this is accompanied by the impatient and unnerving screeching of the horns.

* * *

My early city sights – the night boulevard and the trolleybus that moves on it (promising an adventure), and minutes later – the window of the trolleybus as a frame. I experience traffic in the city at night as a big adventure – it seems huge to me. A little later from the tram windows I practice reading the signs in the streets (“Haircuts”, “Mirrors, paints”, “Grocery”). Uniform fonts on greenish or yellowish background, unvaried sizes. The neon signs at night are too few, and their lights – pale and depressing.

Today the visual space is being drowned in all kinds of signs, plaques and advertisements – small and larger, the huge ones are at the highest level and symbolically dominate the panoramic views in the city3. I get the sense of disaster, but the city is supposed to be “the other” of wild nature and my reactions are like being exposed to suffering. Here the everyday experience with sights can hardly flow into acceptable sentences. (I wonder what children in the trams are trying to read?)

And one more thing – even when walking with my eyes turned to the National Art Gallery I do not understand what exhibition is on there. The sidewalk along it is too close and the sidewalk on the other side of the car park is too far. The giant advertisements are never about cultural events. Advertisements for cultural events do not fit in any route in this city.

* * *

I have “torn” my gaze from the pavement. And I can continue (can I stop?) describing the moving city. The light – natural (without thinking of the smog), with which we remember every city; and artificial – ample, participating in the spectacle of the city, or meager, with a sense of poverty and anxiety4.

The colors – in my experience in Sofia they appeared in the 1980s, on the façades in the centre, and they quickly started peeling off. Like views from the tram going down Vitosha Boulevard and Georgi Dimitrov/Maria Louisa Boulevard, yellow-walnut-red façades changed with withered colorlessness of the side-walls. Soon after the “coloring” smaller and larger spots emerged where the paint had peeled off, and they were clearly outlined on the colored surfaces in unexpected and curious geographical shapes/maps.

Today the colors of the centre are limited. (Recently, a lot of yellow has appeared on residential blocks, public buildings, the National Art Gallery. A friend, who is an architect, informed me that the yellow façade paint is the cheapest.) Along Graf Ignatieff Street and Slaveykov Square, on foot or by tram (it moves very slowly in this area), the gaze is not attracted by colours. Rakovsky Street is similar. Today the colours are on the newly-built residential buildings in the prestigious areas, dispersed, often squeezed between old grey blocks (made of bricks or panels).

In the central area the views are saturated with mirrors and marble. The expensive tiling material seems to lend grandeur and inspire respect and awe for the building. The mirrors seem to cancel the necessity of architecture. But the problem of what is reflected remains. What is reflected in the mirror cube on a marble platform (the decor that simulates what used to be the City Library) is the unseemly and protruding building of the Ministry of transport from southeast and the authoritarian neoclassical pre-Second World War architecture of the Central Postal and Telephone Services Office, from southwest. (The City Art Gallery to the west is so small in relation to the scale of the cube that it cannot even appear to have doubled in its reflection.) I calmly raise my eyes only when I cross the city garden because I see reflected sky – a sense of space and cheerfulness.

* * *

In Sofia we seem to move amid eternal contemporaneity.

I have often given guided walks in the centre of Sofia to foreign colleagues and friends. Through the foreign and unaccustomed gaze, comparisons and questions clearly outline the peculiarity (the difference) of this city. The lack of “old towns” in Sofia cannot be explained only with the history of the city (though I always resort to this explanation). These are missing visions of “previousness” – as experience of time, space and as perceptual experience. The visual appearance of the city from the moment of its constitution as a modern city (from the end of the 19c.) it has always been thought of as contemporary  (contemporaneous to today). The living in “eternal contemporaneity” (in François Hartog5) leads to erasing all images and structures that are different from the contemporary ones. At the moment the same thing is happening in the centre of Sofia.

Previous images of the city – whether residential areas from the bourgeois or from the communist era – are considered to be obstacles, largely physical, in the way of private enterprise. The pedestrian passion for the Sofia of old, small streets is already thwarted. I have in mind the area among the boulevards Dondukov, Maria Luisa and Vassil Levski, and the Canal – the Vladayska river; or the Lozenets residential area, the place of city houses, small residential buildings and picturesque little streets where nowadays there is no space, not to mention pleasure, for walking. The trace, the memory for previous structures are – in other cityscapes – a care for the representation of heritage, of durability. Conditions are created that enable experiences from previous cities through preserved (absorbed) visual stories that are staged by means of light.

* * *

What is the language that we should use when talking about the visual daily life in Sofia? The concepts of which branch of knowledge should we use when we discuss/teach the intertwining practices and value systems? “Anthropology of the city” or “Visual studies” are acceptable answers but language difficulties with respect to the visual remain. Giulio Carlo Argan, a professional art historian and mayor of the city of Rome (1976-1979), tries to combine aesthetics and politics. For him “Urban development is an aesthetic activity which takes place on the territory of political interests.”6 The interior of the city, according to Argan, expresses the structure of a society since it is the space of its existence. But the language of politics inevitably prevails: “the zones with historical and artistic significance in the name of common interest should be wrenched out of private interests of the profiteers...” From the texts of the 1960s Argan moves on to governance practices in the 1970s.

* * *

I decided to take a risk – in the personal visual experiences (even memories) of Sofia a claim for particular significance can be perceived. I offered the snippets from stories as possible “figures” of sharing (supposing that my experience is not unique) and without utopian hopes for positive changes7.

 

Notes

1. Baudelaire’s character aimlessly wandering around Paris.
2. I reread Angel Angelov's text “Nature in Sofia: an Asocial Waste Land” (in this publication) – it seems that few things have changed. The text has an influence over the reader but none over the situation.
3. The project of artist Luchezar Boyadjiev in 2003-2004 problematised precisely the advertisements in the visual space of the city.
4. A foreign academic visitor, who stayed “in the heart of Sofia” at the Bulgaria Hotel in 1996, always insisted on walking toward the light. “Vers la lumière, vers la lumière!” – this anxious appeal remained his distinguishing feature.
5. François Hartog, “Patrimoine et histoire: les temps du patrimoine”. In: Patrimoine et société. 1998, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, pp. 3-17.
6. All quotations and references are from “Kulturata na gradovete”, 1962. In: Giulio Carlo Argan. Izkustvo, istoriya, kritika. Translated by Emilia Georgieva and Nikola Georgiev. Sofia, 1984.
7. Very recently another billboard with “erotic” advertisements appeared – this time it is opposite the west entrance of the University of Sofia.

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