Alexander Kiossev

An Eye for the Pale City

An Eye for the Pale City
title: An Eye for the Pale City
year: 2004
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 3-86588-028-2
language: english
author(s): Alexander Kiossev
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

The new resident fellows

For its second fellowship session, the Visual Seminar has put forward two topics: “The city, the cultural heritage and nostalgia” and “Images of labour, images of consumption”. I believe the projects selected (“Excuse Me, Which City is This?” of Krassimir Terziev and “Therefrom Hereto” of the young theatre group X-tendo) went beyond the expectations. They have provoked the Visual Seminar to redefine some of its key assumptions, and there is hardly a success indicator as sure-fired as getting an innovative and deeper insight into the issues you are trying to explore yourself.

Krassimir Terziev entered the Visual Seminar as a silent doubter. He was certainly aware of the seminar’s key messages: the visual environment is a living environment, we stand for the right to promote taste and literacy in reading the city, etc. Yet his agreement was tacit, and his look was straying. It never occured to us that he was sardonically asking “Excuse Me, Which City is This?” His radicalism came to the fore later on when his work declared, “Sofia does not exist!” And then specified: Sofia is an urban environment fully abandoned to private or personal initiative, a city falling apart to shattered spatial and social shreds, each one having its own logic, rhythm and rule. Terziev was intent on exploring the processes at work atomizing urban geography and architecture, he wished to explore the logic of post-socialist manufacturing of public space. But he went further than that.

X-tendo initially had the look of wide-eyed youth eager “to work for humanity” yet unaware which way to go about it. They went on explaining their fuzzy intentions in an even fuzzier way. In the course of their work however something straightforward and moving crystallized: behaviors are part of the city, history (and stories) are part of behaviors. These many-layered temporalities/practices get inscribed within the city to alter it: the city is a cohabitation of time layers, a peculiar dialogue (or deafness) between recollection and oblivion. Too much a tension between historical worlds and translocations of masses, and the random living of insignificant human beings, the city cannot be taken at face value.

A mutating task

Faced with the Terziev and X-tendo projects we are compelled to recollect something we are supposed to have long known: each large postmodern city is a scattering, a centrifuge: divergent life forms with their own trajectory and direction, with varying social styles, places and times. Its social spaces, even as thought out within the format of a large centralised urban project, are incessantly absorbed or hijacked by individuals and groups. The city is not a planned whole but a series of variegated uses, collages and abuses: a conglomerate of urban locations set up for various reasons and conflicting strategies, with no common denominator. This atomization is a dual process. There is a positive side to it as it is a way for people to establish their ownership of the city. This appropriation in its turn brings along a number of opportunities. It might be a process of intimate transformation, a creation of closeness, warmth and security, a habitation. Yet, at the other extreme, it can just as well be a rather literal, illegal and rapacious misappropriation of buildings, spaces and views, which cannot simply be someone’s property.

We are pushed to remember that the modern city exists in a weird tension between common polis spaces, the intimate recesses of individuals and communities, and places of all descriptions (neighbourhoods, holes, ghettos, haunts, dens, etc.) harbouring individuals or groups of no polis objectives. Existence is conceivable only as co-existence of incompatibilities evading any single viewpoint. Besides, these are not only the urban realities that scatter away, but also the urban signs and the urban perspectives: the city transmits many-faced images demanding of its observer a host of simultaneous viewpoints. Hence theorists call such cities “a vertigo of representations” (Alexander Gelii); Terziev uses the expression “mutating visions”.

As it entered maturity the Visual Seminar became aware that the previous appeal for at least basic, one layered literacy in reading the city is a chummy-sounding utopia. The city is not a translucent text based on a single topic, it is not written in a single language. Neither is it coded in a single code, it does not even share a common alphabet. Manufacturing public spaces is a multiple and multifaceted act escaping the rule of the mayor’s office, the city planning community or the urban activists. Quite a crowd seems to be in on this act of manufacturing places and signs – students and criminal networks, minorities, aunties and football fans, the administration and heavy metals, punks and waves. Therefore reading the city demands a different type of literacy.

Firstly, this literacy needs to be capable of coping with the city’s disorderly plurality. It is like trying to read chaos – a tangle of intertwined cultural languages,
modes of urban sounds, a Babylon of architectural vistas. Construing the city would be impossible without a sense for this simultaneous multiplication and separation of micro-spaces and autonomous sites. Without paying equal attention to old Secession buildings, glossy shop windows and folk music (“chalga” in local speak) bars, to the rundown public places, to the narrow garages, balconies and cellars where pale gamers day- dream...

Such pluralism imposes on the reading eye an impossibly wide vision angle. The eye should shift up and down, front and back, inside and out. Looking up – to the now absent five pointed star formerly topping the pylon of the former Party Headquaters, looking down – to the potholes in the tarmac, looking to the front – to the guard in front of the presidency, and looking around the back – to the glue sniffing Roma kids and the seedy backyards where drug dealers stockpile “individual doses”...

The new visual literacy we are trying to promote cannot be satisfied with the visible surface (façade, advertisements, cultural monuments, sights). It needs to see the invisible: clandestine trysting places in the middle of crossroads, neighborhood park bush where school kids smoke grass while close by unsuspecting grannies dose away by statues with fists pointing to some dusty future...

This “seeing everywhere” demands from the sight to integrate additional senses and other non-visual virtues. Needed are peculiar “sensuality hearing” and “smell” – in order to capture the whiff of streaming text and e-mail messages, the silent off- and on-switching of chats and forums from internet cafés interspersed like virtual oasises around the real city. The eye has to be equally seduced by blazing long legs and advertising buttocks as by the mystique of dingy, reeking entrances of tenement buildings, yet it should not be oblivious to the resolute first graders pursing their own agenda...

Furthermore, it needs memory and patience. Only thereby could the eye trace out some other rhythms: the subdued routes of retirees (the great appropriators of just about everything round the city), their chatty stoops over McDonald’s tables, at little benches in front of high-rise tenement blocks; their risky, slow going raids along flimsy footpaths beyond which hordes of mongrel vehicles growl and honk and curse on an equal footing with silvery Mercedeses and dark BMWs. The “eye” would also need to “hear” (or recollect?) how just nextdoor, in a secondary school’s cold classrooms in a state of repair, the missis still recites Botev (“There! The storm is still chopping branches...”).

Therefore the new literacy we are after needs to master a hermeneutical imagination – i.e. a literacy to the power of two. If power one is related to the self-
making of our own eye, to the way we read plurality, heterogeneity and the variety of urban rhythms, the second power would be the acumen of how various others would read those (it is however a very fine borderline between the two). How the various residents use or abuse appropriate or misappropriate the city, how they chisel into the urban body its own conduct and memory. This meta-literacy detecting various lifestyles imprinted all over buildings, streets and town places (as well as the feebly scraped hieroglyphs of minor lives without a style) should be capable of discerning, e.g. it should tell an authentic youth protest in graffiti from a dauber binge (to be erased with turpentine)...

Perhaps the hardest thing is that this literacy, in all its stupendous complexity, should retain the essence of the Visual Seminar agenda – it has to be a visual literacy. The implication is it should be instant, simultaneous. It should get it all in an eye bat.

However, after redefining the task, does not “all” become the problem itself? Talking of fragmentation and atomization that turn Sofia into a pallid abstraction (Krassimir Terziev), how is it then possible to develop a vision of it all, i.e. of the urban and polis entity?

On the other hand, if the Visual Seminar participants are willing to not only be sensitive (literate) but politically active as well, this Sofia abstraction should by no means be overlooked. Albeit pallid and feeble, the new version of urban entity cannot be discarded if this seminar is to have a civic stance.

Maps and theatre to the Danube level

Krassimir Terziev has his own approach in making sense of Sofia chaos. He puts together his disintegrated Sofia based on the tension among several image sequences gravitating around the manipulative symbol of the map, a few examples of appropriated spaces and the construction of an absurdly theatrical (or cinematic) scene.

The exhibition room was fixed with a TV screen displaying the city’s map – which was in fact an interactive installation the spectator could penetrate, and then whimsically manipulate the familiar outline.

It goes by tradition that the modern map leaves no room for manipulation, it has to live up to its reputation of an accurate and secure tool. Its laid out streets and quarters should be the output of an invisible and absolute eye which designs the city underlying its surface (thus ruling it), as a flat and abstract vision charted out in Cartesian coordinates. The map scheme ought to provide not only an error-free orientation but also an opportunity for a perfect management and control of the city. By tradition it is not only a representation but also a tool for the modern production of the city. Therefore it is expected to be just one of the forms of the modern rational pan-opticum. Short of its unified scale and coordinates, short of its reliability and accuracy, the bureaucratic delineation of boroughs would be impossible just like the successful operation of tax offices, demographics, city planning, property management and other council services. No effective infrastructure can be put in place without mapping, no parks, no public, commercial, industrial or residential areas can be planned out. An unassuming peace of graph paper, the map is an epitome of modern administrative reason trying to govern and develop the city in its own spirit and image. Quite a few years ago Jorge Luis Borges intensified this to an extreme Borgesian hyperbole – a map so so stretched and to eventually coincide with the mapped territory itself.

In Krassimir Terziev’s project this administrative mapping ideal has assumed a dual life. His own interactive Sofia plan is the reverse of Borges’ map. Terziev’s virtual map is mobile and shaky, it has no single scale, it is not even just a map having chosen to hazardously jockey between mapping and other imagery types. This map is a multiple choice programme rather than a self-sufficient vision. What has been taken away from it is the sheer power geometry of the controlling eye where each point has unshakable coordinates: the perspectives are multiplying, the viewer is not hitched to an absolute vantage point but constantly prodded “inside”, into an insecure, democratic and adventurous space which is put out for grabs. Instead of being a product of the absolute eye, this Sofia plan is an artistic game of many eyes, hands and critical minds. Terziev’s screen map also tries to steer the viewer’s behaviour, yet in a seductive rather than in a disciplinary fashion: one sector of the city’s outline after the other flare up, advertise themselves, alter the scale, catch the eye by blazing up or going crepuscular, subliminal messages like memory, heritage, environment flash out as if luring one to interfere, to touch and poke a finger in and get an idea of what’s underneath. The viewer however is not passive: he/she is granted the opportunity to manhandle the images, to stir up and rearrange the kaleidoscope as he/she pleases inasmuch as he/she is curious. The viewer may click throughout the programmed surface: drawers pop up from underneath, pockets and traps of images, visual sequences, stories and colours... It is as if the map fails to fully capture the actual underlying city while the latter is offering resistance and com- motion trying to drag the viewer underneath the ice of cartographic abstraction where bizarre and unchartable locations and irrational Sofia objects gurgle up. Amidst the black and white graphic display, snapshots of stranded Moskviches, Ladas and Trabants pop up having morphed into weird art silhouettes in the neighborhood environment, along the graphic streets puppies, just dogs, doggie-monsters and dinosaurs trot away... (through these visual sequences Krassimir Terziev has been trying to portray the apparently only criterea that unite Sofia, the single common denominator of its urban space). In a different move of the mouse, a utopian kids’ playground comes alive with a militaristic set of mind behind it: climbing frames like tanks, swings like antiaircraft guns (nothing utopian actually – quite a real and jagged socialist concoction in the North Park; it was only waiting for someone like Terziev to have it mapped out).

This is how Sofia’s virtual sketch demonstrates that the classical map is a failed attempt to disguise fragmented spaces having nothing to do with one another, that the map’s smooth wholeness is torn by social volumes striking out to divergent destinations. Politically, this imagery has dual functions. On one hand, it destroys the power of the flat pan-optical space: Terziev’s cartography has sucked in all that is three-dimensional, colourful and unimaginable – what cadastre and council services are incapable of mapping out. On the other hand, the same imagery suggests that the city appropriation has reached extremes whereby the city falls apart as a polis or public space. Terziev’s map is overwhelmed by private initiative, markets and market lets have ultimately razzed the public space and the agora. The city has turned into a heterogeneous, pluralist a-opticum unamenable to comprehensive view and thought. Not even the map can recover its completeness. Its interactive mechanism shortcircuits the viewers’ curiosities from above and the eruptions of live city forms from underneath the graphic abstractions: thus what has remained from the flat administrative instrument is only a brittle surface, which spectators and city keep trespassing both ways.

Terziev has packaged a few of the image sequences emerging out of the map into individual video installations. They represent instances of spaces absorbed by the population aside from or head on against urban reasoning, so egregious as to merit the right to pop out of the map and take on separate lives in the next exhibition room. The children’s playground decorated during the 80s is shown as a ritual of consumerist and kitschy entertainment, rearranging Sofia’s ideological spaces. The piped tanks, cannons, Katiushas and self-propelling devices have been appropriated by post-socialist parents and kiddies consuming their own stuff where they find it without any sensitivity for ideological incongruity, without conscience for the clash between (capitalist) entertainment and (cold) war, without any recollection for endearing soc-sing-a-songs like “children play at soldiers, they assault one another from both sides... however were it not the children but the fathers...”.

The illegal open-air flea market in its turn stages an invasion of the city by grassroots private initiative, out of the concrete trough where the same city has attempted to pack away nature. That is, similarly to the stray dogs (Terziev calls them signs of nature’s (the irrational) vindication over culture), the marketplace seems to crawl out from underneath, from the chtonian spaces. The market has been located alongside the sewage canal, next to the clandestine sludge pipe outlets, in the cleavages where nature and urban culture are pitted against one another. This is an image of capital and market veering wildly from the dominating up-to-date neo-liberal ferver. Within Terziev’s vision, the elemental private initiative and exchange come across as a semi-natural, half-underground force, creeping underneath the city’s epidermis, in and out of its unguarded orifices and tracts. There is no protection against such a force, the city does not even take notice of it having chosen the most hackneyed and needless radio emission as a soundtrack – the Danube level benchmarking meaninglessly carrying on through the decades.

Still, as a key visual counterpoint to the Sofia interactive map, Terziev has picked out another video installation and fixed it across at the opposite corner of the
gallery. There is a rather simple story behind its creation: the artist hired extras, had them clad in period costumes from the requisite and left them alone and  instruction-free in a little dummy street up in “Boyana” Film Centre. The extras were milling around like a busy-work image of urban heterogeneity: troupers from WW1 and forest rangers, legionnaires and city tarts, volunteers and sea captains, party secretaries, dragons and elderly bourgeoisie ladies. We have seen most pieces of this motley attire and these faces somewhere: the scene is strongly reminiscent of a whole lot of Bulgarian films failing to focus on a single particular one, it is both familiar and grossly absurd. The absolute nature of the eye – this time the eye is the cine-camera – is once again spoofed: the vision falls apart into quotations and quasi-quotations, they lead us along into other realms we are just about to pinpoint but are only dragged on further and further...

Otherwise, it all seems to be contained within the classical unity – time, place and action. Seemingly. Because if in the previous installation space had been the
subject of interactive spoof here the emphasis is placed upon tampering with urban time as well as the expectation for its eventual unity. It is the tradition that
the latter should be epitomized by a common large-scale action (as it is in novels like “Under the Yoke” or “Tobacco”, for instance, where the gallery of images unfolds within the universal theater of history). However, in this theatrical urban installation metaphysical characters like Action and History fail to make an appearance. There is only waiting and pottering – typical urban conditions. The extras await instructions and the real action to begin but those never materialize. There is only lateral thinking in the air – fragments from 13 centuries of Bulgarian history in disarray and a host of anticipated plots. Those who wait are oblivious that they are only fake actors, atoms from various periods, potential arias of operas which will never be performed anyway...

The artist’s interest in the process of atomization in the city has inched a step forward: the video installation not only speaks about the individual atoms but also of the bizarre form of their compatibility which the modern city somehow manages to materialize. Despite the absence of a plot and historic drama, Terziev’s Boyana video installation demonstrates the way the various social realms parody one another in an expectation for something really common and big-scale to come about. This expectation by the way prevents them from taking notice of their being together albeit in such an absurd way. They all take part in the city theater of interim timeliness we are all pretty well familiar with. Since while they are expecting History (or their own various histories – who knows?) the troopers and the bourgeoisie ladies, the rednecks and the captains, fail to heed the preliminary: they chat, laugh, flirt, get bored together, go mad together, live together, remaining under their costumes endlessly detached from or endlessly close to one another... “Whose is that city”? – Yes, this is what Sofia is about, look and behold – a dummy, time-place continuum where the uniting element is not the political or public space of the agora but Vitosha’s outline and everybody’s boredom. This is the whole minimal (minimalist) unity of the city left without any other unifying civic contour.

The thing that evaporates

The X-tendo group was also willing to make visible the time factor within the “urban vision” yet in a different sense and in another way. The young thespians live within the performance and see Sofia from its perspective. The key subject of their performance was the visibility of urban memory – an unlikely performance topic. As a genre performance is anti-memory, it is what happens and vanishes, the transient by definition. Sofia was to be explored from a vantage point charged with intrinsic contradiction.

The X-tendo performance went on a few mornings successive in May 2004 when clad in stereotype raincoats and peak hoods actors (reminiscent of cooperative
farms members from the 50s having come to the capital for a jaunt) pop up and down the central station of the new Sofia subway. They dash in front of the crowds emerging from train cars holding up placards reading “Promotion” and “Sale” – some sort of a crossover between a slogan and an ad. Thereafter, as if going on a political rally they head off the streaming crowds up through the escalators to the subway exit. The interplay between communist and capitalist symbols is carried on to the platform in front of the gate where the group shapes into a handsome semicircle, just like it used to be at pioneer recitals: the sham co-op members greet commuters with smiles, sprightly mood and waving of little flags. The placard this time bears the classical “Bon voyage!”. Meanwhile other actors clad the same way yet somehow invisible criss-cross the crowd handing out little flags. People watch incredulously because the flags bear small font inscrutable messages: “Lilly smokes a cigarette”, “Tsvety is eating a pizza”, “Elena is drinking mineral water”.

The performance’s video presentation (once again playing out the tension between memory and transience) renders the message even more concentrated. Its first part comprises of two blended and parallel edited films projected out on perpendicular walls. In the opposite corner, a small TV monitor displays a clip showing Sofia scenes and places.

The main installation is remindful of the city’s vision bearing layers of the past which are hardly fitting into one another. The 60s and 70s rally alongside the
messy shuttle of the capitalist present. On the right hand side of the wall a screen displays mass scenes from the period of “developed socialism” with elated people rallying and chanting “Forward, with the Bulgarian Communist Party!”. On the left hand side, at a 90 degree angle, other crowds of worrisome consumer units dash about individually, each one headed its own way. The next frame on the right hand side shows off new tramcars, the pride of Sofia in the aftermath of the so called April Plenum of the Central Committee of the BCP in 1956. And while the speaker’s voice solemnly rants away that the new cars can go up to 60 km per hour and easily take over steep slopes and hurdles, on the left come and go the glossy subway trains with luxurious meaninglessness.

The films mechanically key together historic times with the single aim of showing that the assembly is improbable. The perpendicular screens are a geometric visual device showing that the socialist past and the capitalist present are out of joint. The layers of time are short of common objective or direction, they somehow do not follow one another. The present is no succession of the heady past but is moving at a slant against it, obviously heading in another direction (if anywhere at all). There is neither a common march nor a shared direction, nor a Hegelian spiral, not even “the end of history”. On the right, on top of the most monumental town scene, in front of the leader’s mausoleum, the past is relishing some bright future of its own which is just round the corner. However, the future from the past fails to make an arrival anywhere. The archive footage of its utopias looks like a ridiculous fiction rather than reality – was it us? This untruthfulness in turn deprives the present in the left screen of any past: today comes from nowhere, it is only shuttling back and forth on the subway. The contrast which the swiveling eye of the spectator can make between the two rallying crowds can only have a comical effect – the restless crowds are only similar at first glance, otherwise they share nothing.

The activation of city recollections targeted by X-tendo produces a bizarre effect: it yields no historic continuity, a narrative or a teleology, it only chops up the time. It makes an askance and absurd combinations of incompatible aesthetics, ideologies, mass motions. In the contrast of screens, urban space undergoes unthinkable transformations – it seems to be an entirely different city. The parading chanting square has been replaced on the left screen by its capitalist counterpart – the speechless subway station. The space of the square monumentality, the communist theatrical staging of history has now been occupied by a sterile functional locality, free of ideological identity as well as of symbolism. It only matters as a discrete element of an invisible infrastructure network buzzing underneath the public spaces. It is a locality made of time schedules and rush rather than History and Masses.

The same way as it has transfigured times and places, the transition has made topsy-turvy of the past regimen of bodies. At an angle to the festive communality of rallying crowds, on the right masses of a profoundly different nature are seen. This is an anti-crowd: a fleeting mass scene which has momentarily glued together random and solitary market individuals. Each one of them has his/her own direction, his/her own chaos, probably his/her own tedious secret. The former unity of the streaming collective labour body is faced head on with the Brownian movement itself. The subway however, with its calculated snugness, mechanic nature and accurate technological pace manages to temporarily discipline the chaotic trajectories of units, being smart enough to achieve this without any common idea, solidarity or utopia.

By the way, the symbolism of technology was not neglected. The double screen assembly acted as a parody of the communist optimistic machine. In times of socialist yore anything of metal and wheel that moved and rattled came to symbolize a technological as well as an emotional bridge to the future (romanticism now is in the machines). Further more, all machines and their attendants were somehow futuristic – not only the traditional locomotives and Dimitar Polianov’s switchmen, not only the Komsomol tractors, steamers, tanks and armoured personnel carriers but even the ordinary city trams taking over hurdles and moving at 60 km per hour and thus capable of giving a lift to History if it was only requested. In the X-tendo films, technological progress is exactly what fails to warrant the unity of time: the subway does not materialize any progress compared to the soc-trams, simply because the time of history has been cancelled. Right on the screen the street cars of yore are cheerfully chiming yet the subway on the left is empty of romantics – it goes nowhere. Its day-to-day humdrum has no direction, it is a mere bashing back and forth between two terminals, a transportation of the atomized workforce – without fatigue, without a common goal, without the day of judgment or a utopian eschatology. This Pendelwerkeher comes from the very core of the new liberal époque: the disintegration of time into market fragments, the coming and going with no Hegelian Aufhebung: transporting cycles shaping no grandiose historic vectors. Simply a network, differentials gears, an exchange and a market of translocation in the metropolis.

And if any kind of link is still been left between the two perpendicular pieces of the screen, it is the X-tendo actors. Their performance permeates the two films as a bizarre mediator attempting to transport historic memory. These raincoat characters are trying to hop from one footage to another: totalitarian peaked hats trying in vain to mix with the multitude of new capitalist atoms. Throughout the film they incessantly travel somewhere, a jolted silent load on trains(?), trams(?), and subway cars(?)... from time to time, as a matter of fact very seldom, they get a chance to descend among the masses, to fake inspiration and flourish the new banners of capitalist promotions and individualism. This is how the disguise, the spoof costumes and roles, the meaningless slogans, are the items trying to bind together the layers of time.

By the way, the most serious evidence that such a tie-up is impossible is the actual urban present itself – the X-tendo 2004 audience failing to take notice of
what the troupe was actually doing. The almost complete absence of effect was virtually the most remarkable outcome of their performance (the film documentary unfortunately fails to effectively put across what was going on live). The camera very infrequently captured the reactions of the rushing people leaving the subway under the upbeat “Bon voyage”. Nevertheless, rare travelers can be seen looking up wily, chuckling or giving a sign having spotted something extraordinary. Taxiing alongside the raincoats and the placards, the prevailing part of the subway community dive morosely their glances to the ground. As a spectator of the live performance I got the feeling it was not simply the lack of interest. There was something indicating that those people were embarrassed as if caught red-handed amidst a crime. After a lengthy thinking process I decided that it was not only up to the most apparent – that they had long forgotten the socialist idiocy and somebody was now shoving it down their throats. There was at least one other reason – they had mentally never been on the subway even though they were physically coming out of it. This seems to be the essence of the anti-location named subway. Because the staying in there was only a spell one needs to endure till it passes away. A time which is to be deleted while still moving (being moved) from A to B. The lonely human bodies for a short while put up with being huddled against one another, being looking into the empty darkness and rocked by the rail cars. Meanwhile, their restless souls, fantasies, memories, hopes have not been down the subway, stranded without historic supervision, they have journeyed along their own idiosyncratic rules... I became aware that X-tendo annoy them for pushing them back for a little while into the real-time capitalist mass scene: Look-up – this is the subway! Look-up – everyone of you is here together! This sudden and unwanted communality exacerbates and embarrasses those capitalist atoms to such a degree as to have them pretending that nothing is going on... The theatrical cheerfulness of those in disguise is another irritant: why the heck are these people so joyful, and in a group to boot? Is it not evident that the public joy and enthusiasm are effigies of another age? What the hell does “Bon voyage!” mean at the dawn of another casual work day?

It is all capped up by X-tendo getting the Brownian crowd involved in a common political action. A lampoon of it in all truth (even a quotation from the performance
of the Russian group “Radek” borrowed without copyright) but intolerable nonetheless. Nailing their glances to the ground at the first intimation of anything collective is a symptom – the transition individuals can no longer stand anything collective or political. No one with a common polis goal is any longer entitled, even for a joke, for the sake of theatricalities, to head their incidental files, their morose individualistic faces each onegazing into its own tunnel. The common or the communal are now unbearable, they smack of repulsion. Everyone is fed up of being part of the crowd, temporarily led and saddled with any kind of slogans, party lines, etc., enough of that! Go jump in a lake with your performances!

The view of the X-tendo exhibition could even neglect the other corner of the room where a rather different footage was running. At first glance, it was another document of urban recollections. However, these where free of any monumentality or even of mechanical collectiveness. The camera lens has captured objects rather than human masses: plastic cups stuck into a drain pipe, a pizza fragment next to a Sofia curb, a cigarette butt left behind the by a creature that was left behind by everyone. This is another sort of time filled with flimsy traces left by individuals (Tsveti, Sasho, Lilly, Elena). Minute and fading as the performance itself, the stranded objects pop up here and there dumped, cast away, deserted, fixed, stuck, rammed, glued, pinned up, written, painted at most unexpected, unpublic and non-mass city spots. For X-tendo these are wilting treasures, the short-term city memory. Everyone leaves behind him or herself a flavour of small personal happenings. The city is a scene of a short lived memory separated from instant oblivion by a thin trace. The city absorbs laces of random faces, consumer leftovers, sloppily scattered waste after the mass scenes. The thespian group has a special relish for these unseen morsels of someone’s short life. X-tendo’s whole ambition is zeroed in on this invisible tension: the frames of put-on history (as well as these minuscule, noticeable bits of the individual) swept away by the wind... People keep dredging such insignificant stuff around adorning the city for a little while with the recollection of themselves, and in a very short while both people and city become oblivious. X-tendo have set out after this evanescence with the zeal of criminal investigators and have made chalk circles around the crime scenes of oblivion – where a vestige is on its way out. The paling trajectories of the incidental (they do not belong either to the world of the March or to that of the Pendelverkehr) mark out another city time wherein man is alone with his/her objects and all that stuff that he/she will generously sow behind without any expectation for a compensation by the city. It goes away, away...

This micro perspective can make one go back to the first perpendicular video installation. After having watched the second screen, the viewer could spot that individual faces and traces can be found in the first one as well: people who chant and yet distractedly look towards Vitosha rather than to the stage; smokers chucking their butts right in front of the stage or bizarre spirited faces among files of people along escalators – troubleseekers, story-tellers or just vividly curious folks. The Brownian people are more than particles – the X-tendo camera every now and then manages to trap traces or footprints of traces, feeble auras that linger on and stay after individuals whom we failed to notice. Just to fade away really fast. Even the chalk cannot help, short-lived as it is.

In this dual context X-tendo are tampering with little flags – such a symbol of powerful collectiveness and historic marching. These flaglets however bear no covenant to stick throughout the ages but little notes to the aid of short-term memory. These are the banners of what is here not to stay. Did Tsvety, Elena, Lilly and Sasho expect the flag bearers, which were to come in their footsteps joyfully brandishing the unimportant details of their lives: pizza chunks, cigarette butts, a plastic bottle with a spit of water inside, a moment of pause? Perpetuating what is transient does not stand much of a chance. But the banners themselves pretty much look like what they represent – ephemeral, minute and insignificant... Souvenirs from a performance you are going to forget, nice little pieces of junk which everyone tossed off anyway.

From the viewpoint of the second installation even the socialist mass scenes may offer intimate, fleeting recollections: in their talk with Diana Popova and Luchezar Boyadjiev X-tendo members claim to have an interest in the 70’s, the mausoleum and the rallies for giving them recollections of/about their moms and dads, a personal sentiment, some of them added. Therefore, this city-based reproduction is a meta-memory rather than a memory: chalk circles left empty. The latter will be short-lived – within a performance spell, over a few film quants of memory.

Eye polices

Thus, what brings together the two entirely different city visions put forward by Terziev and X-tendo is the rejection of the attempt to see the city as a whole. The Sofia vision is not something easily taken for granted but a target for exploration. In it, special and visual elements are entangled with temporal ones, mass phenomena blend with intimate sensation, and the latter with issues to do with the sociology of the bodies and the anthropology of urban memory. The play of frames, interactive programmes, perspectives and performances needs to hold together this multi-faceted, scattered image. The visual and the ideological, the technological and the monumental, the cadastral and the historical, the theatrical and the environmental vertiginously blend together within the casual heterotopia named Sofia.

As a matter of fact both projects are committed to the transitional state of the city. It does not resemble modern capitalist metropolises not only for its relatively modest Balkan scale. The Terziev and X-tendo projects are trying to visualise Sofia’s bizarre hanging in between processes, both projects are aware of the fine line between the as-a-rule-of-thumb pluralism of the post-modern city and its Sofia version.

The huge post-modern metropolises are generated through rearranging the social and spatial matrix of former modern cities reflecting and at the same time materialising the globalised and relocalised economy as well as the new social links and hierarchies among individuals, groups, ethnicities and social classes. Los Angeles for instance (as described by Edward Soha in his book “Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory”, London; Verso, 1989, 1990) has grown from a city into a super-system having incorporated hundreds of small towns and reallocated centres and peripheries in a new fashion. The gigantic city has shoved out the manufacturing facilities in order to provide consumption and entertainment spots all around, it has mixed together the city and the ghetto, has formed a chain of working class satellite areas housing the service personnel and archipelagos of swish residence areas for the rich in the more remote environmentally friendly suburbia. This type of conglomerate exists on the basis of exchange, pulsating through its hyper-powered transport and communication system, accurately assuring the day-to-day entrance and exit of hundreds and thousands of people of various walks of life. They have various destinations, routes and lifestyles but are nonetheless able to hit the right place in the right time pursuing routine and expected activities: white and blue collars, technical staff, bank clerks, yuppies, policemen. The fragmentation and the post-industrial functionality of the city do not deny but assume one another. The heterogeneous mega-polis is a more complex type of social and spatial organisation than the industrial town from the 19th and the early 20th century. The heterogeneity and atomisation of urban space is possible since they are underpinned by a complex infrastructure and webs of social power (with all the Foucault ambiguity of the power concept). The formation of social micro-spaces in them co-exists with the super-powered electronically controlled and controlling routes, traffics and networks allowing another level of centralised urban process management. The mega-polis is a heterogeneous a-opticum, a multi dimensional and multi functional universe without a unifying vision. The eye policy facing such a conglomerate demands an ability to peek into and behind its multi-faceted sight, into and behind the entangled, conflicting and not always fair social relations which the manufacture of city spaces simultaneously reflects and mediates. The task typically embraced by post-modern city planners and geographers is more often than not outspokenly leftist in political sense: to reveal the mega-polis as a new and mediated alter ego of power generating injustice, exclusion and inequality. This is an evermore totalitarian and ever less controlled, anonymous and dispersed power, growing ever harder to resist, which makes it a specific post-modern challenge for the western Left.

Perhaps Sofia will one day be such a city (and as such will have other, perhaps graver issues). The Terziev and X-tendo projects, however, manifest that the eye we are seeking needs to have political qualities as well enabling it to recognize that in such a transitional moment Sofia’s plight is different. It is currently not a super functional mega-polis but a city of deteriorating functions – a new liberal urban havoc, an outcome of week government, fraudulent institutions and a crippled infrastructure. Its all-inclusiveness, a pallid abstraction of bizarre proximities, analogies, week networks and distant links is of a negative nature. This is a city where the processes of absorption and appropriation are given to domination over the techniques of polis binding together, no matter if they are public, power or technological and infrastructural. It is now 15 years that the privatisation developments have been running without the containment of control, complex social rearrangements and provision of infrastructure, without centralized aesthetic solutions for public spaces or law enforcement holding nouveau riche fancy and criminal rapacity in check. The lingering apparition of the totalitarian regime stifles each attempt for civil interference from the position of public well being which now sounds utopian. In effect, bits and pieces have been torn off the city: a motley crew of subjects are privatizing a host of places in various fashions: the criminal go their own way, the political go another, the philistine types pursue their own ends, the automotive-loving types just as well... Housewives are given to glazing their balconies (thus hijacking the facades) in such a peremptory way as the parking lots have hijacked the central squares. The hordes of advertisements, billboards and brand names have ratcheted up a top-rate visual noise with such a silent and uncompromising drive as the Sofia Estate Company is selling out council grounds for peanuts – in an non-trans- parent, non-market and underhand way. Vehicles are perching throughout the pavements, traffic police fine for whatever one might guess, privatizing the fine (and yet if you strand your old car in the middle of the street there is hardly any- one to fine). Petrol stations get erected in parks (a foreign ambassador had to react before the Bulgarian MPs could surmise that there is something fishy in that). Stereotypical hotels, business centers and glass houses of capital are popping up throughout vacant city grounds in the centre without any attempt to accommodate the neighboring façades, styles, owners’ preferences or the overall atmosphere of the place.

Besides, this ruthless, anti-polis interference into urban structures on behalf of a market finding its own identity in the twilight zone, between the sunshine and the black economy, is deemed by everyone as natural. Since every attempt at a centralized municipal control smacks of gone-by communism, rallies and communality – then long live up-for-grabs and free-for-all!

On the other hand men on the street are quite all right – they can take almost unlimited liberties at leaving traces. And this is why they leave behind a whole lot of short-lived memory even though the latter, swept to and fro round the streets by the wind, is more reminiscent of casual city rubbish. By the by, albeit some of the symbolic landmarks of communist long-lived memory were given the blast, communism has also left behind a good deal of its historic rubbish – forgotten plaques of even more forgotten guerillas, a humongous run down eight-angular monument in front of the Place of Culture (can anybody guess now that this is the very flagship-torch-spiral of communism), an insultingly Stalinist monumentalism amidst unchanged street names and syndicate rallies strikingly remindful of some other rallies...

The political and the transport-communication infrastructure of Sofia is, as K. Terziev says, a pallid abstraction. The implication is that the city fails to function in the accurate, calculated and controlled fashion warranting the ticking of an urban conglomerate. The Sofia subway is not a comprehensive infrastructure network underlying the city but still a showcase; mobile telephone operators still keep monopoly prices; the heating company exacts payment from unserviced customers; the Sofia Water Company holds on to a fanciful pricing while the rickety trams and busses charge half-capitalist half-communist prices. In brief: appropriation and fragmentation there is, functionality and infrastructure – from little to none. There is a homespun zoning, partitioning into spots of their own atmosphere, lifestyle and rhythm; there is no fine-cut time schedules, computer control and commuter flow management, there is no mayor and council monitoring legal and city planning standards. Whole Sofia quarters have been misappropriated by half-criminal classes having rendered access to their mobster castles hazardous and just about physically impossible turning cordoning themselves off from ram-shackled streets, sewerage and sanitation, telephone networks, etc. There is another shortage as well – of security provided by safe areas clearly outlined from unsafe ones: shootouts and murders occur throughout Sofia, just as the erotic imagery has not been reduced and enclosed within red light districts but floats freely among day-care centers, suppermarkets, newspaper kiosks and schools.

The Visual Seminar needed to realise it was not only an issue of the eye and the visual literacy – it is a political issue of urban living in this country. Since Sofia is currently a transient, fragmented, chaotic and wrongly privatised city, a defrocked polis. The city somehow fails to exist for having nothing to bind it together.

This is apparently the reason for the artists to associate the city with absurdist unifying image sequences. K. Terziev with the stranded cars and sorrel dogs, with theatrical timelessness and boredom; the young thespians – with the fleeting, disguised and stultified co-existence of individuals embarrassed of being together. In an attempt to keep together the pallid abstraction of a city fallen apart the Sofia way, they are groping for bonds which demonstrate their own absurdity but still safeguard the pallid common body of Sofia while at the same time making its pallor bright and conspicuous...

Could it not be that in precisely such a city, a Whiter Shade of Pale (as it was sung in an old Procul Harum piece), can visual art find more niches and opportunities? In a situation short of actual power, it can assume the mock role of a single social unifier – the absurd glue capable of keeping the centrifugal forces in check for just a fleeting moment.

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Last modified on Feb 10, 2021

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