Georgi Gospodinov, Yana Genova

An Inventory Book of Socialism

An Inventory Book of Socialism
title: An Inventory Book of Socialism
year: 2006
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Georgi GospodinovYana Genova
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 3: The Cliché – Memories, Images, Expectations, 2006, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

A Project of Georgi Gospodinov and Yana Genova

Why “stock-taking”?

The idea for this project has its roots in an ironic/nostalgic question we used to ask some time ago: Where did the lemon slices go? Where did the Golden Autumn biscuits go? Where are the kids breakfast, the Krava chocolate, the Chernomoretz chocolate boxes...? One answer came with their re-emergence. The light industry had somehow got wind of the asking and the interest, and rolled out nostalgia as input, throughput and output. The above mentioned goods made a comeback in those same packages as we remember them in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. The cliché (a visual one in this case as well) has been put into function again unlocking a chain of identifications. Without articulating them, those identifications have become a part of our collective memory. We can also formulate it this way: those identifications have become a part of our unconscious common memory of the taste of sotz. The absence of choice and variety in the context of everyday material culture had huddled us together in the narrow straits of socialist exchange. We all have tasted those goods and remember their taste, we can still pinpoint it and thereby mark out vital parts of our personal histories.

The shelf life of these products has proven longer than expected. The idea behind this project is rooted in the curiosity to investigate whether, how and to what degree taste (within a broader concept) succumbs to or defies the cliché.

Another raison d’etre of the Inventory Book project lies in an obvious deficit. The everyday material culture of socialism, the output of yesterday’s light industry – household and consumer goods, e.g. washing powder, cigarettes, comestibles, etc. – are still short of an archive, and inventory, a “virtual museum”. This humdrum daily culture of socialism has no place in current debates on the past, rather feeble anyway. Interpreters, political thinkers and historians appear unwilling to bend as low as its objects. So the latter are mostly left out of the picture as being too small, too low key and easily falling through the set of larger explanative constructions.

An Inventory Book of Socialism will be an attempt to put together a still nonexistent visual and analytical presentation, a catalog of the haberdashery of a period.

Description of the project

If we have to phrase it in a different way, the project is aimed at recounting the story of triviality in Bulgarian socialism since the 1960’s, through the prism of the graphic and visual culture of everyday life, of the encroachment of the urban dweller’s privacy by the big project of communism, of the attempt to totally unify the socialist human subjects, of the simulations of choice in the consumption sphere. The project is based on the assumption that understanding fully the so called “developed socialism” in Bulgaria goes through a careful archeology of the material world in an effort to reconstruct the role silent objects performed in a society of loud ideological racket. Therefore, our approach runs counter to the historic descriptions trying to grapple with the period by its own measure – i.e. the benchmarks of weighty party congresses and other political events. In an analogy with the verbal history genre of exploration, which tries to interpret the transformations and the interiorising of “big history” by personal biographical narrative, the stock-taking of socialism’s grassroots material culture will try to demonstrate the way objects relate to lofty ideology, what place material belongings have in the symbolic chains of socialism, in what way the “banality of evil” not only materializes itself in political murders, death camps and crucial moral choices, but also trickles down the crevices of hackneyed everyday life and its visual clichés. If “existence predetermines conscience” in the terms of Marxist dialectics, there are (or there should be) direct links between the material realm of objects and the order of society. Along the same logic, the transformation of economic relations should go hand in hand with the transformation of the household realm and its economy, i.e. mass consumer goods should become isomorphic with the big idea1.

If every tomato produced was a nail in capitalism’s coffin rather than a red-colored fruit vegetable, then can eating the people’s wafer (why people’s?) be interpreted as an act of inclusion, of partaking in the body of the people rather than simply lapping up junk food with suspicious taste? The functionality of an object was always shadowed by an ideological implication which was indeed, non-material.

In 1963, as its 10th Congress, the Bulgarian Communist Party raised the slogan proclaiming the birth of the new socialist individual bearing “high spiritual and material needs”, and rolled out a programme for developing the light industry, with the attention focused on the end consumer. The top party decision to enhance the consumption of goods and services paradoxically hinges on a socialist economy of the (state regulated) deficit. The increased consumption programme put an emphasis on the visual side – the packaging, graphic design, advertising, interior design – yet failed to produce a free choice consumer in an economy lacking competition. The goods’ visual side failed to create seductive objects of consumer desires and a consumption-based human identity for being preoccupied with an “upbringing function” rather than with turnover and profit. Supply was creating the “new socialist human being” rather than selling and meeting demand.

As a conclusion, the Inventory Book of Socialism is an attempt to visualize a cultural layer of everyday material manifestations of the “sotz” that formed or deformed that taste of a major part of the Bulgarian public. As we mentioned earlier on, the market has already revitalized some of these articles, the light industry of nostalgia is coming into gear, but we still haven’t honed our reflection skills, our optics, still haven’t worked out our analytical distance to these phenomena. What kind of transformations occur with the visual memory of a flâneur ambling about a Billa supermarket when he or she comes across Prostorchocolates now framed by the Nestle sign rather than by the instructing ideological discourse?

Working on such an enterprise is pregnant with the risk and the pleasure of producing something like the Chinese encyclopedia described by Jorge Luis Borges. But it is precisely the associations such a work stands the chance to unlock, the dusting off of hierarchies and clichés, of those “habits of the thought” (after Michel Foucault) that make it worthwhile.

 

1 We leave out of the discussion the complex matter of whether the project was entirely successful
and whether pockets of resistance were possible.
2 A popular chocolate box in socialist times, the name meaning “expanse”.

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Last modified on Feb 10, 2021
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