Kiril Prashkov

A bit of Past with a taste of the Future (and vice versa) – notes

A bit of Past with a taste of the Future (and vice versa) – notes
title: A bit of Past with a taste of the Future (and vice versa) – notes
year: 2006
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Kiril Prashkov
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 3: The Cliché – Memories, Images, Expectations, 2006, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

What is it that connects the two projects in this book except for being conceived in response to the theme of “Cliché as Identity”? I think the answer is – success. Being successful in one’s own time, which is innate to each element of the material presented by the authors, is in my view hard to doubt. It can be applied to the cliché – the result of big and/or small achievements, as well as to identity, which springs out, just like a cliché, from the attempts to be brought down to reality at least a little.

Georgi Gospodinov and Yana Genova started working on their project “Inventory Book of Socialism” having the idea to demonstrate some pleasant items, emblems of the affluent socialist times, of the type of the International Childrens Assembly “Banner of Peace”, which have endured pass the time of transformation. “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.” In the course of research however, their material accumulated and there was no way to avoid gravitating towards memory, pleasant or not, living or not so much... Furthermore, the signs of that time that have made it across the abyss of the 1990ies turned out to be overly unstable these days – the ways of production and the market are so different these days that “capturing” an ex-product before it has undergone its next transformation is almost impossible. However, although it has mainly been piled up as a memory from the rosy childhood, the material of this project appeared to be necessary and useful as an inventory of the time before the transformations from 1989 on. As far as today is concerned, it seems that only its “identity” is still somewhere around.

I take “identity” in quotation marks because of the second project, the one of Missirkov/Bogdanov “On the Tracks of the Bright Future”. “The series is based on interviews with some 70 upper-grade students in three high schools in Sofia. The theme of the talks we had with them – “what do you want to be”, “how do you envisage yourself after 20-30 years” – gave us the opportunity to mark the basic directions in the dreams of young people, who are now starting their self-dependent life. The photographs from the series visualize seven of these dreams.” The portraits have been digitally put together by the authors and are only an approximation of the initial idea for “sociological” portrait photographs of nowadays high-school kids who are guessing about their future. The works speak of a generation that is negligent about this very identity itself. It is true that Missirkov/Bogdanov have somewhat coached the answers to the question “What do you see on this photograph?”. Nonetheless, by trying to sneak into all that their “clients” are imagining themselves to be the authors are actually well within the framework provided by the contemporary cliché. Who, I beg you will today and here in Bulgaria imagine him/herself to be a poor lawyer, a troubled businessman, inept theater director or a down-and-out doctor? Furthermore, the youngsters appear to have never read Van Gogh’s letters, nor “The Master and Margarita” by Boulgakov, and have not even heard of Chandler... The superimposed photo-beauty that Missirkov/Bogdanov are so good at conveying, is constructing the very dreamed-for world, which is full of unavoidable, so to say, success. The cute anecdote about the essay on the topic of the poor man, which is written by a pupil in a fancy private school in the USA, comes to mind – everything is poor about the poor man, his house is poor, his car is poor, his servants are poor too and so on...

Starting from the eternal wellbeing that today’s youth is convinced off, we can dip again into the full of memories theme of the late “sotz”, which is striving for the beautiful, funny, scary new items that Gospodinov/Genova have arranged in their book. Occasionally their inventory confronts us with such anti-logic that one starts feeling sentimental indeed. I can clearly remember our high-school worries from the early 1970ies while in front of the barber shop – ok now, if fashions change and it will be cool to shave one’s head how will they prevent us from entering the school building – until hair grows back somewhat? Today it looks like a perceptive forecast for the hardships of power – after all we were all quite suspicious of it. Otherwise the socialist state power was trying hard to twist around and adapt while at the same time triggering even stronger adaptive impulses in us. There was the constant necessity to legitimize oneself through the so called “West”, to demonstrate the high level of consumption, to prove in our own eyes how “cool” we are which process finally turned back on itself. The propaganda trap of “our stuff” consists mainly in its own multiplication. At the end when it goes beyond its own borders of validity and encounters nothing but laughter it is left with the sole option of complaining for not being taken seriously. You may recall 1981 – the celebrations for the 1300 anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state and that which was just to follow – the 14th c. so full of promise with the example of the Italian Renaissance and the Quatrocento. The slogan in the window of a fabric’s shop in the city of Turnovo – “Fashionable and beautiful from antiquity to our day”, which was meant to commemorate the 800th years since the uprising against Byzantium of the nobleman brothers Assen and Peter, can only be related nowadays as a joke (which is just as telling a sample as the prefix “Veliko”, which actually means “great”, mounted in front of the name of the city in our childhood in 1965 – it is usually transcribed and not translated into English...). All of this could be defined as nationalism if it was not so provincial and insecure. One still wonders who gave the order in 1976 (on the occasion of the anniversary of the April 1876 uprising against the Ottoman Empire) to hang the magnificent quote from Benkovski, the celebrated hero of the uprising, as a slogan reading “The struggle requires victims and there is nothing to fear about it” above the road to Koprivshtitza, one of the main centers of the uprising.

Looking through the items collected by Gospodinov/Genova I would like to point out one returning item of “Sotz”, which however appears to be also impermanent when measured against the project of Missirkov/Bogdanov. I have in mind the fonts used in the press, which is known to legitimize the “national” in various ways and guises. Lettering in Bulgaria is also part of the strategies for the construction of identity. Obviously the debate on the problem is still ahead of us – as if jokingly some officials started a program titled “Europe is reading and writing in Bulgarian”. Jokes aside, the fact is that for the first time (because of us!) the Cyrillicalphabet will have to be made official within the EU. Supposedly the process will be quite painful for the local identity – it will come as no surprise if Europe asks us to start reading and writing in “European-ish”.

Bulgaria, which was turned into a tourist case window for the entire Soviet Block, all of a sudden got the chance to “shake” a little bit in the 1970ies wherever the alphabet was concerned. Do not forget that the only other country officially using the Cyrillic alphabet,and not allover at that, is the Big Brother of the USSR (Yugoslavia and Mongolia did not count for a variety of reasons), which loved us as its most loyal young brother. It’s true that in Moscow I have bumped into the concept of the Tomato Country (Bulgaria...) but that was within the almost impenetrable intellectual circles. Bulgaria as a whole was nonetheless beyond borders, “abroad”, for the most part in the USSR. (One should keep in mind that the famous Russian saying of the USSR times that goes like that “The hen is not a bird, Bulgaria is not a-broad...” has another part following, which states that “...and a woman is not a person”, and that changes the whole direction of the joke.) According to some Moscow friends at the time (the 1970ies) they did indeed had the feeling that Bulgaria is drifting in Westerly direction by slowly braking away from the Black Sea...

It seems though that nowadays the kind of Bulgarian progress as well as the Cyrillic alphabet is slightly becoming evermore “Westernized”. I do not mean to appear to be heretically promoting the abandonment of the Cyrillic so I will provide an example – the popular in the USSR brand of Bulgarian cigarettes “pogonu” (“rodopi” – named after the name of the Rhodope Mountain Range in the south of the country near Turkey and spelled with a specific Bulgarian-made Cyrillic font) were joyfully referred to as “pogonu” (thus reading the strange for the Russian eye graphic form of the BG Cyrillic characters as if they were actually Latin characters). The catch here is in the lowercase font, which is absent from the Russian kind of Cyrillic alphabet, and is replaced here by writing with borrowed Latin characters. This is a good starting point to talk about the following “splintering” of the Bulgarian Cyrillic with its use of the lowercase font, which is very close to the lowercase characters from the Latin alphabet – such as for instance, the “g” (in Bulgarian Cyrillic this is a “d”) with its downwards extension making it appear very much like the Latin “g” pronounced and shaped in any way you like it – after the English, French or German “fashion”... But that is distinctly different from the character “д” (signifying the same sound “d” but shaped as if it is a capital character only smaller in size) coming from Russia and its version of the font adaptation of the Cyrillic. The truth is that in Russia Peter the Great, who himself personally engineered the reform of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet in 1708, could not care less about either the esthetic look of the lowercase Cyrillic font or the brotherly Slavic languages, so he coached the Italian font-casting company “Bodoni” into simply reducing the physical size of most capital characters from the Cyrillic so at the end the Russian-made Cyrillic lowercase font looks like downsized capital characters. No question is does not look good and anybody who is dealing with the printed letter today is cursing to hell the Cyrillic printing fonts. However, what was to be done? Bulgarian had no other choice in the matter but to follow the largest Slavic/Cyrillic user country that later on was to become its liberator on top of everything else...

In any event, the euphoria of the approaching 1300th year’s anniversary triggered a process of demonstrating independence and Cyrillic beauty – new fonts such as g (d=д), n (p=п), u (i=и), m (t=т), k (k=к) and others derived from these started to appear. Until that time the use of some of these had only been allowed in the Italic version of the fonts following the originally Western idea that the Italic is anyway similar to the handwritten form.

That in itself would not have mattered one bit (books and newspapers were still printed with old fonts, and as far as I know the cast sets were coming from the USSR as well), had it not been for the super inflation of the national theme, after all Cyril and Methodius were from our stock... And that’s how at the end things settled down – the Bulgarian-made, ours, fonts with an occasional awkward form or two are abundant, while the printed production is dominated by the “Russian” Cyrillic font which is in any event more economical. So, everything could go to rest but there you go... the changes of 1989 and the fall down of the Berlin Wall came along. Russia was degraded while very soon Bulgaria turned provincial... I would not even consider writing all of that now if it was not for this new phenomenon – what was propagated in the times of socialism is coming back and nowadays that’s utilizing the concept of “identity”.

There is no printed production now, which is not using computers. However, it is in each and every pre-print studio where you will hear the destructive comments on the Cyrillic fonts. But OK, let’s try in the USA, where most of the software comes from anyway, and ask/search for a Cyrillic font... After the unsuccessful attempt you will thin of specifying “Russian” and of course, you are flooded with software. Thus, once again people in Bulgaria are working with Russian Cyrillic fonts (guess why...) no matter how much some local experts are trying to create and market software with the BG label at the end. So, the hope is that Europe will start reading Bulgarian in the cliché space between the Russian Fonts and the “Bulgarian characters”... My professional experience of a graphic designer allows me to maintain that one of the main tasks since the 1990ies is the separation of every Western-sponsored book into two – with Bulgarian and (usually) English text. Of course, that is not only a “Cyrillic” problem since colleagues from Lithuania or Estonia have had the same problem. It is clear, I think, that it is not just a matter of the alphabet. Actually, very often nothing depends on the will to translate – one of the most successful and economical, including graphic characters, designs for a Bulgarian product, which is the package of the “БТ” cigarettes, vanished along with the loss of the markets for the Bulgarian cigarette industry, although there was a Latin variant of the “BT” (“Bulgartabak”). Most likely we will keep on turning to the experience of the “most experienced” in the EU, the Greeks, let’s say. The cause of their alphabet is helped by the image, aura and attractiveness of Ancient Greece for every educational institution. “Our” alphabet is helped (or damaged) by Russia as the pinnacle of the Slavic world, of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and so on no matter how unfair we think that might be.

Recently somebody suggested the next patriotic idea – to have a private company sponsored prize for designing “ours” Cyrillic font to be used by the printed media (...let’s stop using “Russian” fonts, ok?). There were (definitely not for the last time) some other cries about which ones are the good and the bad guys (on the basis of the fonts they use...) – as if a great number of restaurant menus in Bulgaria are not printed with the (so called) Izhitsa character (a computer version of Old Church Slavonic) meant to underline the specific Bulgarian identity of the yogurt and feta cheese; or still better – the greatest in my view achievement in the discipline of free-style naming of “national” dishes in Bulgarian restaurants that I saw in a fancy Plovdiv restaurant – “Khan Asparukh for two”2...

In as much as one is able to judge the last time another country reformed radically its alphabet was at a time of regimes we can now define as totalitarian – one is the already mentioned adoption of the “Civic Alphabet” in Russia, the other is the reform of Atatürk in Turkey, for instance. (I would not like to speak here about the cases of a return to previously used alphabets.) Today, with our current conditions, changes in this sphere, no matter how progressive they may appear to be, are nearly impossible. So there is hardly any danger for either the Cyrillic alphabet or the use of its “Russian” versions in Bulgaria. I think that it’s rather an entirely new direction – another language altogether is being used along with its alphabet. In any case, here the final “judgment” belongs to the “models” from the project of Missirkov/Bogdanov. These youngsters will by default be outraged by any violation of the local identity while at the same time they will obviously integrate them-
selves within the other option – they are consuming pleasurably the “western” stuff, in other words – that’s a cliché.

I must admit though that totalitarian Bulgaria did score one unbelievable (even by today’s standards) achievement as far as the Cyrillic alphabet is concerned. There is no way it can come back unlike the other more successful items from the “Sotz” such as the lemon slices jelly candy, or the “Banner of Peace” Assembly or many others. Just like the time when the shoulder-length hair, the Coca-Cola and the blue jeans were a sign of opposition will never come back. That is unfortunate as such a come back could alter significantly the visual environment of the city, the main theme of the Visual Seminar. I have in mind the replacement of the Latin font with a Bulgarian font in the logo of the world famous corporation which is long time now adorning the night skies over the roofs of the most notorious buildings all over the world – the logo of Coca-Cola. (You may recall the Sotz joke from the 1980ies about what Ronald Reagan’s presidential order was when they reported
to him that the Soviets are apparently painting the whole moon in red – well, paint over the Coca-Cola logo, he said and this joke only comes to prove how much did we know about the actual state-corporation relations there in the West). The emblematic bottle of “Кока-Кола. Запазена марка“ (“Coca-Cola. Trade Mark” with all text written in Bulgarian Cyrillic) features prominently in the project of Gospodinov/Genova. The drive to have the Cyrillic visuals emulate perfectly the “real thing”, the Latin “Coca-Cola” logo, will no doubt make even the young boys and girls from the Missirkov/Bogdanov project proud to be Bulgarian and proud of the place their country has in the big world. I mean, look how much we have transformed and adapted the most symbolic of all capitalist corporations while letting opening our market for its product! How is it possible not to believe that we are indeed the center of the world, of culture and so on since antiquity and up to our times, after such an accomplishment! It matters not that as a local market effect (that is to say, an ideological slackening) there were new local products emulating the drink such as “Sun-” and “Coop-Cola”... In any event, the Cyrillic Bulgarian-made “Кока-Кола” visuals are an incomparable reason to be proud – neither Russia nor anybody else around the world has ever been able to achieve such a thing. It’s not by chance that in the early 1990ies quite a few visiting western-European intellectuals took home with them samples of this fantastic sign of the success of the Sotz in Eastern Europe. I have no doubt that some day the samples will come up and out as a weapon on the barricades of anti- Americanism...

I am convinced that this bottle, along with the whole package of documentation related to its conception and production, belongs truly in the National Historical Museum, if not the MoMA in NYC. I have no idea who initiated the idea – was it us, was it them? How did they stop the production line, what did cause the regress back to the dark memories of the 1950ies with the propaganda image of the American soldier drunk on Coca-Cola who is murdering Korean children? I wonder why since we are the living witness of the careful and entirely in line with globalization attitude of the supranational corporations towards the local traditions (and vice versa)...

The case of this bottle seems to me to be even more important then the attempts to “westernize” the Cyrillic. At least it is more direct – a translation (a visually honest one at that since it’s hard to imagine Coca-Cola spelled in Bulgarian Cyrillic with an Izhitsa...), to be followed by a rejection of the translation. There is something here from the hypothesis in the Petia Kabakchieva text from this book – communism in “peasant” countries as a decisive step towards capitalism. I also recall a fragment from the Arnold J. Toynbee’s book “A Study of History”, which explores the differences between the missionary activities of Catholicism and Orthodoxy – the uncompromising stance of the Catholics that the Mass should be conducted in Latin (which is incomprehensible for the neophyte adepts of the Pope) as opposed to the “democratic” ways of Byzantium that took it upon itself to translate the Holly Scriptures into languages (and alphabets) accessible to the new citizens of the Empire, what the new converts to Orthodoxy presumably became.

I think though that I am straying too far away from the comparison between “pogonu” and “родопи”. I am sure that the future life of the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet in Europe will trigger much deeper texts then this one. The theme is endlessly rich and promising. It is tied up to culture and politics on a level far beyond the local attitudes and imagination. The material surrounding it can give bread to quite a few generations of researchers. I can only predict that the Cyrillic “Coca-Cola” will never come back. On the other side, we should never miss the chance to remind the world of our existence and our identity by constant efforts to produce cliché(s) universal significance...


1 Cyrillic adj [St. Cyril, reputed inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet] (1842) : of, or related to, or constituting an alphabet used for writing Old Church Slavonic and for Russian and a number of other languages of eastern Europe and Asia (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1993)

2 To make things easier about the name of this “Shashlik on a Sword”, a friend from Croatia translated that into “King Tomislav for two”, while a Polish friend into “King Mieshko for two”. The English version of the name of this patriotic dish will probably have to be converted into “William the Conqueror for two” or “George Washington for two”

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