Alexander Kiossev, Christiane Mennicke, Iara Boubnova, Ivaylo Ditchev, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Milla Mineva, Regina Bittner

Capital Cityscapes

Capital Cityscapes
title: Capital Cityscapes
year: 2005
date: June 5th
editor(s): Regina Bittner
place: Sofia
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Alexander KiossevChristiane MennickeIara BoubnovaIvaylo DitchevLuchezar BoyadjievMilla MinevaRegina Bittner
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

A discussion. Moderated and edited by Regina Bittner


Iara Boubnova curator, chair of ICA – Sofia, leader of the Visual Seminar

Luchezar Boyadjiev visual artist, fellow and memler of the Board of the Visual Seminar

Ivaylo Ditchev Professor in cultural anthropology at University of Sofia, member of the Board of the Visual Seminar

Alexander Kiossev Associate Professor in cultural history of Modernity, co-leader of the Visual Seminar

Christiane Mennicke curator, leader of the city gallery for contemporary art, Dresden, Germany

Milla Mineva sociologist of visual culture, fellow of the Visual Seminar

Regina Bittner Professor in Cultural Studies, leader of the international Bauhauskolleg, Bauhaus Foundation, Dessau, Germany


Regina Bittner: What happens with a city when it becomes an image? Under the rubric “symbolic economy,” cultural theorists and urban sociologists have discussed the special role of culture, tradition, and history in the construction of images of cities that are intended to make cities identifiable by the outside world. Many municipalities are pursuing such a “politics of visibility” in order to make their cities attractive as international bases for capital, investors, tourists, and desirable residents: a positive image is produced that combines a certain standard of high quality of life in the city with local attractions. Often such images of cities are so homogenized that they run the risk of eclipsing the heterogeneous practices of urban dwellers. I suspect that for artists and cultural theorists one of the central intentions of the Visual Seminar was to explore the question of how artistic works can intervene in these representational relations.

Dresden and Sofia are two interesting case studies for this development. Whereas Dresden has salvaged its recognizability by reconstructing the Baroque city center and hence its relation to history and tradition, the image of Sofia is marked by the insignia of international firms and trademarks; advertising here is very aggressive and radical. What ideas of urbanism revolve around the dominant urban discourse in each case? Is it the desire for a bourgeois city in Dresden's case? And in Sofia's a high degree of accelerated urbanism, the search for places where no rules apply any longer?

Christiane Mennicke: In Dresden the image of the city has been restricted to a very specific profile over the past fifteen years. The city's image has been shrunk to encompass only its historical monuments, meaning above all its most important sites: the Frauenkirche, the Semper Opera, and the whole of the historical center. Because a certain tradition of technical innovations has been declared the expression of a “Saxon spirit of invention and entrepreneurship,” this image has been enriched with a touch of modernity. The everyday life of the city today is scarcely part of this image at all. In the case of Dresden, therefore, I would place a question mark behind the concept of the urban, if by “urbanism” we mean the visibility of heterogeneous urban architecture and everyday life. The debate over symbolic economy is crucial here, because an image production that has become decoupled from everyday life and autonomous has direct effects on life in the city.

Regina Bittner: So in Dresden a homogeneous image of the city is being produced that has little in common with ideas of urbanism. How does that play out in Sofia's case? The Visual Seminar has focused its discussion on visual urban culture. Can one also observe a homogenization here in Sofia, an attempt to produce an image of the city that is identifiable from outside?

Alexander Kiossev: I think the first thing to discuss is who are the players in this game, and who is in a position to determine the image of the city. In Sofia's case, many people are involved whose motivations are not so clearly identifiable. We have several historical buildings that are very important symbolically, and most of them have been renovated in the meanwhile. So as far as that goes, there have been efforts to improve things for tourism. But Sofia's center is not really a tourist attraction, even though I have encountered several tourists who say that Sofia looks like a Western city. That is to say, there are various signs of Europeanization. One sees steps toward improving historical elements, especially the ones with political significance. At the same time, however, it is difficult to determine who the other players are. Who are the players who are transforming the image of the city so decisively?

Christiane Mennicke: I find it important to ask who are the agents in this symbolic rebuilding. For Dresden, that question is easier to answer. The development of strategies to position the city in the competition with other cities as a site for investors and tourism has been going on for a longer time in Dresden. The cultivation of such an image of the city has for years now been the work of the municipal planning office and Dresden Tourismus GmbH, together with other municipal and private partners. Hence the agents are comparatively easy to identify. I am certain that the situation in Sofia is totally different. Perhaps here there is more discussion of who has the power to determine what the city could be in the future.

Ivaylo Ditchev: If I may follow up on that: that's right, there is no clear image of Sofia. No one gives any thought to it; the municipality doesn't do anything about it, and the official reason for that is that there is still no urban plan for developing the city. That has been postponed. No particular efforts were made to do it, because having no plan made privatization so much simpler. Only in 2004 was a plan approved by the municipal parliament, and it has yet to become law. The responsible parties are unable to develop an urban development plan. Recently they did pass an ordinance regulating the placement of advertising in the city, and that can be seen as a first step in the direction of regulating public space, but they are a long way from any real concept for integrating urban development.

Milla Mineva: The city has certainly not developed a concept, but I think that there is nevertheless a clear idea of how Sofia should develop. Looking at the most recent reconstructions, it is clear that they are primarily early twentieth-century buildings. The goal of that is to present Sofia as a Central European city. The Beautiful Bulgaria project, which is supported by the Bulgarian government and the development program of the UN, seems to want to depict Sofia in the same way. If you analyze all the buildings currently being reconstructed as part of this project, the strong emphasis on the early twentieth century is striking. In my research on postcards of Sofia for the Visual Seminar, I found a growing discrepancy between a homogenized tourist image and the real, physical development of the city, which occurred more or less naturally. What the  postcards convey is precisely this homogenized view of the city. The increasing discrepancy between the real city and its visual representation is the problem.

Iara Boubnova: For Sofia, I don't see a clear model that could be represented here. The reference to the European city suggests itself, but European cities in general are very different, so, as far as that goes, “European” doesn't really mean much. Isn't it really more of a debate about capitals, about the division between the city center and the official buildings that represent political power? It is, in any case, a very selective production of urban images. On the other hand, Sofia is a medieval city, which is evident above all in its churches. And in addition to the building of new churches, which has been in full swing for five years now, there is a whole series of other historical layers. Are they elements of the invisible city of Sofia?

Ivaylo Ditchev: I would like to say something on this topic. We have already mentioned the question of the local players in each case. Sofia's current mayor (Sofianski) has a very special vision for the city and its future. It is a centralized urban space that he would like to see realized in the reconstruction of the city: the triangle between the public baths (the former Turkish baths), the mosque, and the synagogue. This is the old center of the city, which was also the political center of the Ottoman city. The mayor represents the idea of an old resident of the city, who wants to have the Sofia of his childhood, the Sofia of his parents. Suddenly even buildings from the early twentieth century are becoming part of this image, even if they aren't really even old at all. Then there were a whole series of debates about the importance of water as a symbol for Sofia. In the end there was a sort of compromise in the debates over the city center: one part will be the museum, pedestrian zones, shopping streets, and the city hall. A strange combination of things, but it is a compromise. I think that when we discuss what is happening in Sofia at the moment we cannot ignore the influence of the mayor and the people surrounding him. He turned the shopping street into a pedestrian zone, and at the same time buildings from the socialist era are being torn down.

Regina Bittner: I would like to return to a point that Milla Mineva mentioned: the discrepancy between the image that the city produces of itself and the real
city. This discrepancy was, I think, the point of departure for the Visual Seminar. On the one hand, there are efforts to anchor Sofia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries again, because this image fits well with the process of integrating Bulgaria into Europe again. On the other hand, the presence of international investors, which is evident from the quantity of advertising in the city, is producing an image of a dynamic and up-and-coming metropolis. How do artists intervene in this discrepancy?

Luchezar Boyadjiev: I would like to start by referring back to the debate over an identifiable image for Sofia. For in contrast to Dresden, which can relatively easily be identified with certain things, at first glance Sofia does not have much that is easily identifiable. Even if the mayor is trying to produce a clear image in the context of EU expansion, I don't think there is a clear concept here. What there is, however, is everyday urban life. And in that sense I find it good that we don't have a clear policy of visibility. I like to compare Sofia to Bucharest, a city that is confronted with the same challenges. In Bucharest it is quite difficult to find a café on the street or a bar to drink a beer. In Sofia, you find a whole series of, as it happens, small cafés and bars right in the center, in essence unregulated situations that are part of everyday life here. That would be impossible in Bucharest. Some artists from Bucharest were visiting me a month ago, and they said that Sofia was a smaller city but it had far more vitality. How do we respond to this discrepancy? I think it is about getting many potential parties to be active, drawing them into the debate over the image of the city, in order to put pressure on the municipality. For it is, above all, about the politics of visibility.

Christiane Mennicke: I think it is really important to realize that it is about politics. Even the historicizing image that is being produced in Dresden naturally
has many repercussions for the city. It is obvious that it is a fiction that may be defended in terms of history but is in fact a-historical. Looking at the corresponding brochures of images makes it clear that important parts of the city's history – its destruction during the war, for example, but above all the still visible influences of socialism – are left out of the story, because there is a fear that they could be perceived as negative. What you get is actually an elimination of history, not its reconstruction. That is a real problem for anyone working in a cultural field. Because when we eliminate the differences and fissures from the process of history, a very problematic form of politics emerges. This has consequences for the current municipal politics as well: if investment is primarily concerned with the reconstruction of the city as a tourist attraction, little money remains for a decentralized social and cultural infrastructure and politics, and hence for the real quality of life in the city.

Alexander Kiossev: What Christiane Mennicke is describing makes it clear that Dresden has strong agents who are in a position to control, more or less, the city's development. In Sofia, it is quite the reverse. The municipality is weak, and the motives of the mayor and other representatives of the city are not quite clear. Sometimes they block regulations in order to create space for other parties or lobbies. That may make the city seem more open, more heterogeneous, but at the same time there is a lack of structure and organization. In Sofia, many different, heterogeneous parties are struggling to create an urban structure. I think that the role of urban politics ought to be regulating the practices and visions of the city without controlling them, that is to say, creating a kind of mediation, a shared political space.

Christiane Mennicke: That is an interesting point. Who does in fact have the power to determine the image of the city? We should talk about that. Even in Dresden the municipality is not in a strong position when it's negotiating with investors. Nevertheless changes are always visible when the point is to parade economic growth in the city. On the other hand, very strict limits are placed on architecture. Colors, materials, the number of stories in the city – all those things have been set until very recently. What Alexander Kiossev said about the role of politics as the producer of a common space is important. But this common space must, of course, be accessible to all. Take Luchezar Boyadjiev's example of the small, improvised, and above all inexpensive café: it is becoming more and more difficult to find that sort of thing in downtown Dresden.

Luchezar Boyadjiev: The “small café” is surely something like a metaphor. In this context I would like to introduce the concept of a lack of transparency: Sofia lacks transparency on various levels; it affects small shops as well as the so-called entrepreneurial culture. One of the most problematic developments, for me, is represented by the new villas: inaccessible and invisible bastions on the edge of the city, built illegally on lots that were previously gardens. The villas imitate a particular style and pick up on the international trend toward gated communities.

Christiane Mennicke: I found this concept of lack of transparency that you introduced interesting, but in fact all of these developments are, if anything, overly transparent. In the case of gated communities, for example, one can so clearly see the ideals, desires, lifestyles, value systems, and privatization of resources they represent. But the lack of transparency covers another interesting aspect: when cities like Dresden work so hard on their image, the decision-making processes and the interlocking of administrative and private interests are difficult to separate in retrospect.

Alexander Kiossev: Visibility is a complex phenomenon when it is discussed in the context of the wide variety of lifestyles and urban practices today, which after all tend to be of a temporary nature. For example, in Sofia one sees many activities in small parks, on small plazas, in Internet cafés, and in clubs, where people pursue their version of a global life. But the networks on which these sites and practices are based are invisible, and they too produce a lack of urban transparency.

Ivaylo Ditchev: I would be inclined to speak of different degrees of visibility. The color of buildings or their materials are not the problem here; the problem is rather where the streets, the palace of culture, or the clubs are placed in Sofia, and how they can be accessed. Everything in Sofia is placed around a small island, and everything  that lies outside this privileged area – the places where people live – is never seen by anyone. Visibility is also a question of infrastructure.

Alexander Kiossev: Over the course of our debate we have come to a point that leads me to ask how we are to read the invisible things in the structure of urban visibility. I think that it's more a question of approach, of cultural approach, for example. How should one analyze the new urban space?

Regina Bittner: I would like to talk about another topic. Both cities are currently in a transitional phase; both share a socialist past. Yet whereas in Dresden new urban players came onto the scene in the wake of German reunification and the transfer of institutions, in Sofia a “capitalism without capital” developed. What is the
relationship between the corresponding images of cities on their two different paths of postsocialist development? In the course of our discussion we have already tried to work out these individual features. But it seems as if Sofia's path to the capitalist city has many advantages over Dresden: deregulation here, overregulation there. Our conversation reflects a relatively broad range of voices of leftist intellectuals and artists from Western cities, who tend to bring admiration for the flexible, informal, and temporary practices of Eastern Europe, whereas on the other side there is a strong desire for more regulation.

Alexander Kiossev: The kind of deregulation these leftists are speaking about seems to be a result of a process of peaceful negotiation among wide
range of actors. The leftist vision sees here no conflicts; as if the deregulation mentioned is a peaceful result of a peaceful coexistence. Our experience with deregulation, however, shows that it leads to a lot of conflicts and painful situations: it is close to chaos, not to peaceful coexistence.

Christiane Mennicke: I take the reference to “leftist projections” very seriously. Nevertheless, I believe, when I see the many images of Sofia you have collected, that those of you at the Visual Seminar are also working on a kind of archive of the city's wealth of visual culture. Looking at the development of other European cities, it seems perhaps that these are pieces of evidence for an urban diversity that will no longer exist in fifteen years. Naturally there may be a tendency to project, inspired by the wealth of visual materials we have before us here. And of course one can discuss whether it is desirable to have this sort of small corner café with handwritten signage. If I count myself among this group of “leftist intellectuals,” I do so out of a sense of a deficiency, because these forms of participation hardly exist at all anymore in cities like Dresden.

Luchezar Boyadjiev: Perhaps Dresden is a special case in that respect. I recall in Kassel, for example, that there are still a lot of small stores and busi-
nesses. Much of it has not been renovated, but it functions as part of a district, of a lively neighborhood. That seems to me important in the context of debates over participation. Perhaps Kassel is a terribly boring and controlled city, but a kind of neighborhood mentality still exists.

Christiane Mennicke: But when you look more closely, it often turns out that many of the small shops, snack bars, and even kiosks often belong to large chains, even those of shoemakers or tailors. It is becoming more and more difficult for people with little capital to open their own business. That is also a result of regulations.

Iara Boubnova: In our case, we are not against the regulated city, but we are against the privatized city. That is the problem in Dresden's case, that the public sphere is subject to a strict system of regulation. We have a private sphere that is developing very quickly, and there is no agreement at all anymore between public and private spheres. The city is now dependent on capital, and essentially independent of the municipality. Players in the public sphere are unbelievably weak in their possibilities for influence.

Christiane Mennicke: I consider this development comparable, because the spaces that appear to be public have often been privatized. Increasingly, public space is disappearing in Germany too. In downtown shopping malls, for example, more and more private security companies are involved. These places are privatized by a
series of rules that are no longer defined by the municipality but by the business owners. If you belong to a certain type of consumer, you are welcome; if not, you don't belong here. We are talking about the same thing; it simply looks different and has a different degree of openness, but it is nothing other than privatization.

Milla Mineva: I would like to introduce another distinction at this point. I think that the leftist debate around regulation has another aspect in the background: regulations often permit greater transparency, and in that sense they are also related to participation. When regulations are required, it also means that more opportunities to participate in urban life are required.

Christiane Mennicke: That is why I would tend to be cautious about asserting that regulations per se are problematic. One quickly runs the risk of ending up in libertarian waters. The situation that Iara Boubnova described in relation to Sofia shows that only the stronger survive. That is not a desirable situation. The consequences of regulation must be examined very carefully.

Ivaylo Ditchev: That is why richer cities are usually far more regulated than poorer ones. I think a look at Africa will demonstrate that convincingly.

Christiane Mennicke: I disagree, because our cities are getting poorer, but that doesn't mean that they are ending the process of regulation. It means, rather, that they are concentrating on particular places, giving the appearance of order and stability, but in the background everything is falling apart. Public swimming pools and libraries face budget cuts; and on the other hand there is investment in areas with commercial potential and in creating an “orderly” appearance. Every community in Germany has the same problem, and all of them are trying to solve it by following the same pattern.

Alexander Kiossev: I would like to return to a debate that we had with the Dresden Postplatz project during our last meeting in Sofia. It concerned the understanding of regulation. I think we cannot overlook the question of citizenship in all these issues. The people who live in a city should be the ones who decide about life in that city. What is happening in the Dresden case is very difficult. The capital is coming from somewhere else, as are the investors, and the residents no longer have the right to influence the project. The consequence is that more and more people have the impression the city no longer belongs to them. How do we take the cities back? By regulation or revolution? The city should belong to its citizens.

Regina Bittner: Answering the question to whom the city belongs raises several difficulties. If we think, for example, of the worldwide increase in migration:
shouldn't people who are staying in a city for only a brief time be respected just as much as citizens? I think that given this situation the understanding of what “citizen” means needs to be revised.

Christiane Mennicke: For me the city is a play of diversity, cultural diversity, and the various minorities that live in it are an important part of this. In Dresden this
diversity has yet to develop. Not many migrants live here; there is a relatively large Vietnamese community as well as migrants from the former Soviet Union, especially Jewish immigrants. And then we look back on a history of racist attacks, and we have a rather right-leaning government in the state parliament of Saxony. But the current negotiations on the European level are also cause for concern. Everything revolves around an economy of fear and violence. Certainly that is understandable, sending people back who are anchored in criminal networks, but often that is just a cover for the policies of a Fortress Europe.

Alexander Kiossev: In that context I would like to return to the question of what we really mean by “local.” Luchezar Boyadjiev's project Hot City Visual of 2003 thematized that in an interesting way. The relatively invisible minority of Roma, with their local small trade, suddenly appears on an enormous billboard on one of Sofia's most symbolically important squares: the billboard provoked the reversal of hierarchies and brought it into the public sphere. The way in which it is thematized refers to global image strategies and relates them to this local small trade.

Christiane Mennicke: That reminds me of another point that relates to the status of the “citizen” in Germany, and that is something that outsiders should now know. During the period when the status of refugees has not been clarified, they cannot participate in the society, politically or economically. Asylum seekers in Germany are not allowed to work. Part of the population is effectively forced to be idle, in the sense of an imposed passivity.

Ivaylo Ditchev: On the other hand, we still have to ask what it really means to be a local, a citizen of a city. Ever since the Middle Ages being the citizen of a city was associated with certain privileges, even for newcomers. Can we live without such mechanisms? Can you imagine citizens without privileges and migration without regulation?

Christiane Mennicke: I don't believe it would be desirable to live in a state without regulation. Nevertheless, we have to ask to what extent Europe can just barricade itself off. The liberation of thinking in terms of the nation-state is seen as a progress and is employed when the issue is meeting economic interests. The migration of people is also a global phenomenon; nevertheless, for the most part it is declared illegal and barred.

Alexander Kiossev: I would like to return to a point that thus far we have discussed only in passing: the role of artists and artists in the context of urban politics. I see two different positions here: either one tries to negotiate with official parties or one tries to oppose them with subversive projects. I think that both positions are associated with the Visual Seminar. On the one hand, we have initiated public discussions in order to enter a dialogue with the municipality and other possible agents. We had interesting debates with the mayoral candidates and with the city council. On the other hand, several proposals for projects were completely subversive. We didn't follow a clear political strategy, and we didn't advise the municipality either. I believe that the possibility of cooperation should not be excluded from the outset. It is one opportunity, and I have the feeling that our German colleagues frequently do not want to acknowledge this chance.

Regina Bittner: I think that has something to do with the situation in Germany. Sometimes, when I think about what artists are doing in Sofia, I see connections to the situation in East Germany prior to 1989. Many artists at the time were taking over functions that were essentially the result of a lack of a political and urban public sphere – and it was not without risks. Many things in German society are more subtly differentiated today: there are municipal forums, working groups, and various institutions that address topics that are currently addressed in Sofia by artists.

Alexander Kiossev: I would not fully agree with that. Two weeks ago there was an interesting discussion here about art and politics. One of the Germans giving a paper described how art could be successfully integrated into the Bundestag. A series of artistic works is now located at the heart of political power.

Christiane Mennicke: I would make a distinction there between mere status objects and something that might possibly have an influence. The distinction is especially clear precisely in this example of the Bundestag, where art represents political power but has no influence on the political process itself. I think that the question is rather on what level we cooperate with politics. As for as the Dresden Postplatz project goes, your assessment may be correct. It was not the goal of the project to create an alliance with the municipality or with the city planning office. Instead, we tried to create a kind of utopia, making it possible to experience public space on different levels: for example, having a radio station that was not limited to artistic projects. It was about integrating the community of cultural producers on a larger scale. We tried and tested a model, to see whether it could function in the city. If you want to implement another image of the city, it is relatively difficult to work together with administrations whose task is to produce a clear image. Artistic competence is sought to valorize the city symbolically; if you criticize this kind of image politics, then cooperation becomes considerably more difficult.

Iara Boubnova: The situation in Bulgaria is different. The Dresden case reflected more the position of artists in Germany. Artists from the West know their place and their role in society very precisely, but here, in our case, all that is completely unclear. They do not know where they stand in the society, and at the same time they have lost what they had. These small groups of intellectuals and artists function and work more or less without support from the society. When we talk about visual politics and the role of the artist, we should, I think, make a distinction There is, on the one hand, a kind of artistic production that cooperates with this symbolic valorization, by creating monuments, for example; this is a more or less regulated system that subjects artistic work to certain ideological and political demands. On the other hand, there are social projects. There is a lot of interest on the international market in these social projects, but we have no local market for it. No one here is interested in seeing artists create social projects. Large sections of Bulgarian society still have the idea that artists sit in their studios and produce something visible, something artistic.

Christiane Mennicke: In Germany too there are competing concepts of art. That also has its origins in the different historical developments of the two Germanys. Certain reservations are not as developed as they are in Bulgaria, but in Germany too there is still the idea that artists produce something in their studios – a foun-
tain or a sculpture, say – that can then be exhibited in urban space. This way of thinking can only be placed in perspective by committees of experts. So it really isn't so clear in Germany either what place artists should occupy on the community level, for example.

Alexander Kiossev: I would say that cooperation with the city government, or with political powers in general, is always a risky affair. Sometimes you are simply used, but sometimes you can also intervene. Those are the possible directions: in the spirit of the affirmative use of art to elevate the status of a city or as intervention, to change something. But the latter practice has its risks as well.

Regina Bittner: My impression is that both approaches, the Postplatz project in Dresden and the Visual Seminar, pursue the intention of bringing “into the picture” the conflicting images of and ways of using urban spaces that have evolved in various milieus in order to assert something like cultural diversity against the image politics of our cities today. The artistic strategies appropriate to thematize the contemporary relationships of municipal representation have a lot to do with the given urban contexts that we have explored during our conversation. Interventions move, I believe, not in the opposition between order and deregulation, affirmation and subversion, even if these antitheses play an important role here. Perhaps these categories are also associated with value systems that have entirely different means in their respective contexts – postsocialist Sofia and East German Dresden. We have argued about that here as well. And perhaps the comparison of the two cities will encourage us to question these terms, which are no longer adequate to the complexity of urban transformation.

I would like to thank you all very much for the fascinating conversation.

Translated from German by Steven Lindberg

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