Diana Popova

A Forecast for Sofia

A Forecast for Sofia
title: A Forecast for Sofia
year: 2004
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 3-86588-028-2
language: english
author(s): Diana Popova
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 2: An Eye for the Pale City, 2004, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 3-86588-028-2

In his project “Excuse me, which city is this?” Krassimir Terziev often uses the words “intuitively” and “study”. As a combination they seem like an oxymoron, but actually they describe the process and the results quite precisely. I have always had great reverence for the intuition of artists – it does not need an accumulation of facts, knowledge or analyses in order to draw profound conclusions or to sometimes make a surprisingly accurate forecast about the development of a process. By contrast, in this case the artist finds himself literally amid the object, which is a “geographical” one, and which bombards him with a number of facts tempting him to explore. And he does carry out an exploration with the statement so typical of academic studies that he does not set out to be comprehensive. One could say that Krassimir Terziev’s project gains from the oxymoron: while “circling” around it, the viewers are free to embark on, and follow, their own intuitions, to include their own facts, to add to the conclusions and to develop the forecasts at random. This is because in the mean time the viewers have recognised the project of the artist as theirs. Here lies the main danger which is also generated by the oxymoron – to turn the freedom of the viewer into anarchy.

Which, by the way, has already happened. The issue of the Kapital newspaper arts and culture supplement from 17 – 23 April 2004 has appropriated Krassimir Terziev’s project as a recurring topic, and Katya Atanasova has appropriated Sofia as well in the article “Answer: “This is my city”” providing an example “how people can turn spaces into their personal surroundings”. In this case they turn them into a personal memory, too. It is interesting that the very mentioning of Sofia today is an occasion to immerse oneself in reminisces about the Sofia of the past, in the sentiment of childhood, in the wisdom of the old woman and the pine, as it is in the case of this article. The issue at stake is that the appropriation is not related to another person’s grandmother and pine tree, grandfather and lime-tree, or auntie and poplar, etc. The appropriation is ruthless and selfish, it affirms that we live here as individuals not as citizens. I consider myself to be more tolerant with regard to my personal city. When I dream of the streets Boris, Parchevich and Gladstone as being rid of all the cars so that I can see the area as it was in my childhood, for example, I can imagine a different situation. For instance, I can imagine that if by force of magic the cars indeed disappeared, at some point an old man would be saying to the children from the neighbourhood: “When I was a little boy, this place was full of colourful cars and we used to play “hide and seek” around them. There was an old Russian car propped on wooden planks and under it the street cat Lisa reared her kittens. Oh, what fun we had with them ...”. In other words, as an imaginative person, I can imagine over a million personal memories, cities and dreams, but I am interested in that which, in the aggregate, we as citizens can agree to be Sofia.

In May three of my students chose Krassimir Terziev’s exhibition at the ATA centre as the frame of reference of an examination task. It is interesting that as artists they were provoked not so much by the specific visual images as by the people these images refer to. “There is a theory that in order to live happily in a city, its population should not be over 30,000.” (Zornitsa Piskuliyska). Sofia is “an environment that has no present” (Milla Stoeva). “There is nothing that unifies or provides an identity for the person in Sofia” (Elena Tomova). Further on, while reflecting on the reasonable question “Why should this be Sofia – there are other cities and capitals that have illegal markets, stray dogs, or fragmentary spaces without any link among them?”, we affirmed Krassimir Terziev’s conclusion that “Sofia does not exist”. Because while other cities and capitals (which we have visited) have a city centre – a group of buildings and/or historical monuments – as a characteristic feature, our capital definitely lacks any. What I have in mind here is not just an administrative centre or a geographical site, but a positively and emotionally perceived, shared, and inhabitable place. The lack of such a place in Sofia inevitably reinforces the tendencies toward fragmentation, breaking down and personal appropriation of spaces.

Krassimir Terziev writes that Sofia is “only a pale abstraction projected by institutions which is not capable of resisting the flow of “real life””. I do not agree with him on this point. Institutions do not even attempt to resist and to hold the city together, on the contrary, with their projects they take part in the breakdown on a par with the individuals. In the last ten years the Municipality created several fragments in different styles and from different time periods: Pirotska Street and the square in front of the Central Baths, the fountains in front of the former King’s Palace and in Slaveykov Square have been “recreated”. With ambitious consistency kitschy elements have been introduced in the Stalinist architecture of the area known as the “Largo” (situated between the Sheraton hotel and the TSUM shopping centre – tr.)... Unlike the ordinary city inhabitant, the Sofia Municipality can afford massive fragmentation and breakdown, and its business contacts increase the scale. The levels of project activity have risen in the National Assembly and the Ministry of Culture but, fortunately, there are no project outcomes yet. Against such a backdrop the children’s playgrounds equipped with swings, slides and the like from the arsenal of World War II are innocence itself, a dear museum memory from times more regulated (even though it is not clear who designed those playgrounds at some point in the 1980s according to the archives of the local municipality).

Of course, we should not neglect the “grass roots” individual initiative which features in the video “A Market”. When I watched it for the first time I thought that the artist had used the bulletin about the levels of the river Danube in centimetres because he had known about the Danube lottery. It turned out he had never heard about it. I was facing yet another sparkle of artistic intuition. I was told about the Danube lottery a few years ago in Rousse. Then in the “1” magazine I read Gerassim Platanov’s article which looks at the history and the development of the lottery as well as the modes of making stakes in the past and nowadays. As far as I understood, the winner is the person whose guess about the levels of the day were the closest to the real figures. The lottery itself is also carried out on different levels. The author of the article refers to the observations of an owner of a canteen located close to an army base, on the soldiers in the regiment who were from different villages and towns near the Danube. The men got together every afternoon in the office of the soldier on duty to listen to the bulletin on the radio and then they boosted the canteen’s turnover considerably. “Once one of them, who was on the verge of tears, and amid sordid swearing at the Romanian towns of Mohach and Zemun, ordered 140 waffers.” The article also reminds us of the Slovakian leader Vladimir Mechiar who in 2001 undertook a “considerable intervention in the levels of the Danube... by drawing the water out of a whole dam lake near Komarno once, much to the surprise of his own government and country.” The article goes on to refer to websites that are password-accessed only (I have not checked them and I am taking the author’s word for it): the statistics of hits on one of the websites is impressive indeed and makes us “believe that 24,300 people access it daily via their mobile phones to get updated information on the levels of the river for navigation purposes.”

The link between the Danube bulletin and the market along the Vladayska river is quite direct. In both cases there is an appropriation of common and commonly useful things (places, spaces) for dubious activities of an order that is too different from the original design. The take-over of the public entity for a private use leads to the emergence of closed spaces and communities in which uninitiated individuals feel unwanted. The canal of the Vladayska river is an extreme and hence precise example of this process. And even though I have not used the canal in its original utilitarian status (it is the river that uses it, really), I can easily recognise the City garden, for instance, in this image. Every summer four of its eight entrances are congested with the tables, chairs, sunshades and marquees of five cafes and bars. This year the fifth entrance was usurped together with a third of the garden for the needs of the newly-built Grand Hotel Sofia. The remaining three entrances, still relatively passable, we owe to the American embassy, the Ministry of Defense and the Sofia Art Gallery. The problem for the passer-by which I have to deal with, is that one is forced to go though a private, public and then again private space – depending on one’s route – which creates quite contradictory sensations. Not to mention the inconvenience of having to manoeuvre among tables and waiters, or the reproachful look toward the passer-by trespassing the appropriated space...

While I was thinking about the streets as the last, and fast diminishing, common space, I remembered that there is at least one thing that unites the residents of Sofia in their opinion on the characteristic feature of the city, and which calls forth positively loaded associations. This feature are the yellow bricks with which a central boulevard – Tsar Osvoboditel – is paved. Celebrated in prose and verse, collected at the first opportunity (i.e. in times of road repairs), and causing sighs of nostalgia to expatriate Bulgarians, the yellow paving bricks seem to be the only thing capable of awakening citizenship conscience. The danger that “They have started to fold!” caused grave and widespread concern three winters ago. Recently, local residents have raised the alarm that “They are being removed and replaced in our area!”. Everything that happens to the yellow paving bricks receives immediate media coverage, thus causing surprisingly fast measures from the Municipality. And just when I was about to feel relieved that I had found the thing that we, the residents of Sofia, collaboratively load with positive emotions, I remembered the  words of a friend of mine from Dimitrovgrad. While slipping on them last winter, she muttered’ “Ferdinand (the first Bulgarian king after the liberation from Ottoman rule – tr.) must have hated Bulgarians a good deal if he had the central area covered with this physically dangerous and hardly passable pavement.” There you go, I thought to myself in a sparkle of artistic intuition, there is at least one identification characteristic: the Sofia resident is a masochist.

 

P.S. Since I am the only person who knows about Krassimir Terziev’s project, and who has followed its presentation on the screens of Metromedia in the stations of the metro, I feel obliged to report on it.
• The excerpt from “A place (children’s playground)” I saw at an appropriate hour in the early afternoon in the company of a few people, including two mothers with children. Judging from their empty looks, they never realised what they were watching. Or perhaps the reason is that in the metro people generally have this kind of look...
• The excerpt from “A market (the levels of the river Danube)” I saw twice, both times in the rush hour, and I can say that it was met with great success i.e. with total incomprehension. The clip was inserted among adverts for soaps and washing powders which introduced among the multitude of commuters the sense that they are watching just another ad. The expectation was that the ugly image and monotonous bulletin would be over every minute and that they will be replaced by a shiny product promising a bright future for everyone. Instead, subtitles appeared at the end which read “Visual seminar programme, organised by ..., with the support of...”
• “The city of dogs (post-urban landscapes)” I saw at a very appropriate time too – I was waiting for the last train at 23.30 at the Serdika station. Besides, the few late commuters, including myself, were in the totally appropriate miserable mood. The look of gigantic stray dogs among tall grey blocks of flats was just the right ending of (and a forecast for) another day in Sofia ...
D. P.

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