discussion with moderator Iara Boubnova

Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference: “Gostilnica Rimskata Stena” (Roman Wall Pub), Sofia

Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference: “Gostilnica Rimskata Stena” (Roman Wall Pub), Sofia
title: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference: “Gostilnica Rimskata Stena” (Roman Wall Pub), Sofia
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Iara BoubnovaLuchezar BoyadjievPetia KabakchievaMiglena NikolchinaBasak SenovaAlexander KiossevHristijan PanevDiana PopovaMaria Thalia CarrasVeronika TzekovaIvan MoudovKiril PrashkovVladia MihailovaUros DjuricRené BlockDan PerjovschiDimitar KamburovKrasimir Terziev
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

May 29, 2004

Iara Boubnova:

I want to draw your attention to the fact that this is not a typical conferencing situation. I would be happy if some of you are hungry and will enjoy the food right away so that we can start our public conference – conference in a pub, which is titled Balkan Reunion.

First I need to say, not as a confession, but rather as an announcement that I don’t belong to the Balkan region unconditionally, totally nor originally. I was simply not born here. But I have been living in Bulgaria, on the Balkan Peninsula for more then 20 years. It was here that I went through the last pleasant moments of late socialism and the whole period of transition. I don’t merely observe the situation but I try to participate. My attitude to the Balkans and its people is very different now from the knowledge I had about the Balkan Peninsula when I first came to Bulgaria.

I would only like to mention that the first professional Balkans-related gathering that I attended was among the most pleasant meetings I ever had. It took place in Tirana in 1998 and we were installing the exhibition “Permanent Instability” curated by Edi Muka. Before opening the exhibition we, of course, gathered in a pub – a situation very much like this one. There I understood that the Balkan peoples are really one good family – if not a family, then at least a very close neighborhood. We spent all the time together trying to synchronize names of dishes and drinks; trying to figure out the country and cultural tradition they belong to. Everything got totally mixed up but we enjoyed ourselves much more than in any other similar situation.

Balkan shows during the last years – by which I mean representative Balkan shows – were usually organized outside the Balkan region. They present some specific type of expectations to which Bulgarian artists, among all the Balkan artists, are supposed to respond in some way. The question is what are these external expectations about the artistic representations of the Balkan region? I tried to use once my... well, everything that curators work with, in a Balkan show; this was when we were arranging the part of the Cetinje Biennial in 2002, which was dedicated to artists from the Balkans. So, I tried to express something by inviting different artists and giving them the opportunity to communicate with the Balkan environment and the Balkan situation. We have some very interesting observations about ourselves and one of these is that it is much easier to communicate, to work, to discuss, to enter any specific discourse around a table. We had a good time in Cetinje whenever we were in such a setting, eating, drinking and feeling really well together. And we had enough problems to solve, the problems in the show, the problems with spaces, connections, ways and rules and so on. I am very much impressed by the possibilities afforded by informal presentations of whatever original art and culture and my awareness was raised thanks to one project of the Bulgarian artist Luchezar Boyadjiev. It is titled “Artist(s) in Residence Program”, and it took place in 2000 in the context of a large show in Paris. The years between 1999 and 2000 were a very peculiar and traumatic time for all of us. Luchezar made a very unexpected gesture – unexpected from an artist who is supposed to be a person focused on his own self. He invited to his project and he shared his space, time and money as well as his representational abilities with his friends/artists from neighboring countries – Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. This reminds me that something quite positive could happen if one separates oneself from the official system and from the systems that come from schoolbooks.

So, we suggested this type of gathering, this development of the trilogy “In the Gorges of the Balkans”, initiated by René Block, as a Sofia development of the second part titled “In the Cities of the Balkans”. This part offers very interesting possibilities for work because it involves exploring further the representational situation, this time on “home ground”.

But when we started discussing the possibilities for arranging the discussion in a pub, I was strongly criticized by one of the most respected members of the academic community here, Alexander Kiossev. He insisted that we are thinking in traumatic clichés, that we are not trying to recognize the complexities of the situation and to accomplish a much richer and more sophisticated representation of the Balkans. I decided, despite his advice and recommendations, to try doing it and to see how things could happen when we are eating and drinking and we are a bit less formal than usual. I will also try to talk a bit less than usual... After all, we all understood that the most important thing is not only to gather artists and people from the contemporary artistic infrastructure, but also to arrange the talk on a multidisciplinary level, because people from different professions and backgrounds can help us with their input and suggest new lines of thinking.

I will start by presenting a cycle of works from the Bulgarian contemporary art scene. The colleagues from our neighboring countries, whom we have invited here, will talk about and show things from their countries and cities. But first I would really like to apologize for using the English language here... Initially my dream was that this conference in  a pub – as it could be logically expected from an event conceived as chatting and pleasant eating and drinking – should happen in a Balkan language. This was how it would happen, ideally that is. Unfortunately, we don’t have one common Balkan language...

Voice:

English!

Well, yes, and this is exactly the language I’m using. We have this English language for communication, which somehow alters our position as insiders.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

Iara is obviously showing her favorite works and artists from our scene... But we know these pieces for years and it makes me feel claustrophobic in a sense... I would like to say – this pub is very tight; it’s so small, that it feels like a title for an artwork – this is an “identity overkill” situation. There is too much Balkan identity around. The Balkans is a very saturated space with many overlapping identities, claims, conflicts, dramas, and so on. So, perhaps we owe you an explanation why the pub is so tight – because it matches the stigma, the stigma that the Balkans are a heavily congested space. Secondly, I would like to remind you that this project here, in Sofia, is part of the trilogy, which René Block started. And because we are supposed to be open and informal I would like to say that I sympathize very deeply with René Block because his show was exceptionally attentive to the practices and the cultural context of the Balkans, and yet it did not get much media coverage. In a sense the art press in Western Europe and America stigmatized the curator of this show and of the whole trilogy. It was because the show that was the most attentive and in many ways the best among several Balkan shows that took place in the last two years in Europe, that it received the least amount of critical attention. We must welcome René Block’s “return” to the Balkans. And I feel that he is one of us because he has been stigmatized as too much Balkan – giving too much attention to very delicate details of the history and the current artistic practices on the Balkans. I would also like to thank Natasha Ilic, who is the coordinator of the whole cycle of events in the second part of the trilogy, all these events in the cities of the Balkans.

Iara Boubnova:

I apologize for showing these obvious artists and works, it’s because I love them. What you just saw here is practically a projection to substitute a show. This could be the answer to the question what Bulgarian Balkan art should look like, how it could happen, how it could react to the demand to be a Balkan representation.

Petia Kabakchieva:

I feel quite strange here because I’m a sociologist. Somehow it is awkward to be here. But I love artists and particularly these artists here. So, I’m here to make a speech and I’m not sure what it should be about. Probably the problem is what this original Balkan identity means? I saw the catalogue of “In the Gorges of the Balkans” and I was asked to comment on it. So, I will somehow speak about what Balkan identity is, if it exists, and about what I’ve seen in the catalogue.

For me the problem of the Balkans is the clichés that the Balkans are usually seen through. Usually the word Balkan is associated with a lot of conflicts, a very tight space and a definitely negative impression. I’m afraid that we have started replacing this image with another homegrown image that is also somehow related to a cliché – the good image of Southeastern Europe as opposed to the Balkan image. It is linked with eating a lot of common food, a lot of drinking, and with the everyday level of culture, OK, here this seems cool, we will be laughing and singing and drinking and so on and on. I like the  exhibition I’ve seen through the catalogue because it shows a reversed perspective. It breaks up with all the clichés related to the Balkans. Usually the Balkans are thought of in the category of too many events – they are overcrowded, they are overloaded with history, with a lot of people who are laughing, eating, drinking, killing themselves and so on. But what I saw in the catalogue is the loneliness of the Balkan people, the emptiness. So, in opposition to the overcrowded space and the overload with history, I saw people – artists from Bulgaria, let’s say – who totally neglect history. This seems somehow unthinkable in the categories of Balkan art. What I saw in the catalogue is at best irony towards the Balkans, let’s say machismo, pessimism no more and so on. In other cases there is just a focus on specific persons, on details, on objects, on city/urban environment and not, let’s say on mountains or the rural areas. I would say that this was a surprise for me and I wonder what’s Balkan about the works of the Bulgarian artists? This leads me to the next question: which identity counts? I’m dealing now with a project concerning Eastern and Western cultural clashes, mostly ones between the political and business elites. In this project it turned out that social status matters more than any other kind of identity. Some of these elites feel totally like... anything but Bulgarian. They are European, Westerners and so on; they are open to the outside space or they are really
cosmopolitan; and some of the people living in remote areas feel too local because they feel attached to their environment, so to say. For me this is the question – which identity do we belong to? I agree with Zygmunt Bauman’s remark that if the problem of modernity was the fixing of an identity, or the construction of an identity – mostly the national – then the problem of postmodernity concerns recycling identities. So, we have the opportunity – and this, I think, is the best – to choose our overlapping and sometimes controversial, identities. When I see the works of a Balkan artist (whatever that is) or of a Bulgarian artist or of an artist as a universal concept, the interesting thing for me is to find traces, marks of different identities, which I can reinterpret from the perspective of my own different identity. This is the challenge – mixing identities rather than focusing on the cliché of the Balkans. I suppose that for the artists the identity of being an “artist” is stronger than the identity of being a “Balkan artist”. I wonder whether one can say, “I’m a Balkan artist” or “I’m a Balkan sociologist”. Probably yes but...

Miglena Nikolchina:

I took part in a research project about Bulgarian migrant women to Italy and Holland. Everybody who is a migrant to Holland – and we could see the same with Hungarian migrants – was really complaining about meeting people only after making an appointment in advance. Here is what one of the migrants said: “I hate this “agenda”. For example, a woman comes and wants to see me – let’s say this happens in June – and she says “let’s meet in October”.” And this is her comment: “I don’t know whether I will be in the mood in October, whether I’ll be here in October, whether I’ll be alive in October, but she says let’s meet in October.” So, the idea of a country, the idea of patriotism, which is never mentioned – the word is never mentioned by young migrants – is indeed the idea of easy communication with people, that it can happen in a simple way. So, there must be something about it. During the interviews with the migrant women I was also thinking in terms of communication. In academic circles here in the 1980s communication was the main topic and you could see this in a number of ways – let’s say in discussions on Plato or in discussions on Tzvetan Stoyanov who died in the beginning of the 1970s, as you remember, and his work began to be published much later. He was concerned very much with the “genius of communication” and this could be understood best by the people who knew him well, who talked with him and who attended his talks. My idea was that communication also became important, so important in the 1980s also because of the possibility to say things that you couldn’t write. Something which could not be published – because real censorship existed, could be said when talking to other people. You should know that this is no longer of much academic interest in the country right now – nobody writes about communication, no one seems to be very interested in this topic, but somehow it is of great interest for migrant women. So, this is my brief comment, whatever the cultural differences it may seem to create for various reasons and to different ends. For intellectuals in the 1980s communication was understood as a certain political atriculation, which was turning into a political topic. For the migrant women communication is perhaps their weapon to deal with a situation that they find challenging and difficult. Ultimately, for me the problem is not simply the existence of cultural differences – they might or they might not, they are probably visible sometimes, sometimes they are not. The problem is: why do we need them in certain cases and why don’t we need them in other cases? And the problem indeed is why do we need to talk about Balkan identity right now? And I would also add one other thing, I don’t know whether the artists would find this an interesting example, but a book of mine was recently published in the United States. In fact, I never actually met the publishers. It all happened through Internet, but at the same time a lot of mail went through the regular postal service. Very frequently they had to write to me at “Sofia University, Bulgaria”. Also in the book I wrote a lot about Bulgaria. And yet, when they put my biographical note on the cover of the book, they wrote that I teach in “Sofia University, Hungary”...

Basak Senova:

It is problematic for all of us, I guess – this homogenous “Balkan reality”. Of course, the history of culture, the history of the region and the social habits are of great importance. But I think that what shapes your perceptions in life is the recent personal history or your recent past. So, if I look at the last 30 years, I would say that in every region of the Balkans we have had different experiences. Although the culture shares the same origin and we have a lot in common, what we experienced in the last 30 years is totally different. If I take former Yugoslavia or Turkey or Bulgaria as an example, I would clearly see how different the recent past is. In Turkey we didn’t have the communist past but we had three coups. We had different kinds of oppression and other political and social interferences. It’s very hard to link these realities and to try to find a homogeneous Balkan reality. But at the same time I really appreciate all of these big exhibitions on contemporary art from the Balkans because of many other reasons and especially – I really agree with Luchezar on this – that René Block’s show was the most attentive one. I think that they work and have had benefits in many other ways. By benefits I mean that it underlines and presents the differences and also that they show works from different regions that never had the chance to be shown – nobody would care about them before. That’s the first point I wanted to make. And the second is that, from my personal experience, I truly believe that a generation makes a big difference in terms of perception of things. So, starting from this point of view together with Erden Kosova we developed a project that was realized in two cities in two countries: one of them was in Graz and it was done in the framework of the Balkan Consulate (organized by the <rotor> association for contemporary art in Graz) and then we moved the exhibition to Israel making a few changes. It would be nice to show you the work we did together. These two exhibitions were based on Istanbul but indeed these were not representative exhibitions with regard to the city, rather they were parts of a project based on a generation – a generation that is stuck between two generations. The generation of the 1970s that was highly engaged politically, and then the generation after us, which is the “sleeping generation”, as we call it. It comes after a very radical shift to neoliberalism. We are in the middle and what makes us different from the others is that nothing about our generation has been recorded. So, for us the exhibition, the whole project was a very good research. What I can emphasize now is that it was an exhibition based on our generation, and we know lots of things about what was going on before, in the past. Then we reacted through our artistic production – not through revolting, not through shouting – but by constantly producing and producing and producing in a very underground way but very ironic too because it was ubiquitous.

I’m going to show you now two documentary clips of these two exhibitions – most of the shots are dedicated to the production phase. So, you will also witness all these multicultural elements or however you may wish to name it... this whole fusion of people working on the same project and the result of it. For the project, we worked on creating a specific visual language that was in synch with the works in the exhibition. The project, which serves as a backdrop to Istanbul, manifested itself in several ways: the main gallery was laid out to facilitate the provision of audio, visual, and written information about the era. The Comic room conveyed information by the usage of space on a perceptual level. The two biggest rooms opened into each other, and contained works that were conceived partly as cultural commentary, and partly as artistic. The gallery was totally transformed by architectural interventions, the aim of which was not to change the identity of the gallery but to articulate the layering and abstract elements present in Istanbul. After completing the project “Istanbul, Daydreaming in Quarantine” in <rotor>, 2003, we realized “Walking Istanbul, Notes from Quarantine” in the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, 2003-2004 as the continuation of the project. In Israel, the exhibition focused on the visual notes, remarks and traces of the city as the reflection of the inner-world that is trapped in the mundane and untamed realities of the streets.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

The Ottoman Empire has given the name to the peninsula, it has given the framework of the cuisine as well as many words, it has given a lot of “childhood stories”, which are usually shared... It has provided, for instance a very good excuse for being lazy especially to countries that had been under the Ottoman domination for centuries, the Oriental way, you know, as in take it easy... It provided my family name as well as the family names for other Bulgarian artists such as Nedko Solakov, and Christo (Javasheff). I hope that now there are theoreticians that are already relaxed and/or angry, so I would like to ask the next speaker – hoping that they have a classical education – please, remind us the original meaning of the ancient Greek word “symposion”.

Alexander Kiossev:

I haven’t heard th classical word so I won’t comment on it. I have prepared for talking about something different. I have been wondering how to start ever since I was invited to give a short talk here, and I’m trying to link the topic of my personal research – “The Balkans and Balkanism” – with the artistic community in Sofia, and not only in Sofia. Imagine a situation of exchanging messages – because art is communication, as Miglena already said. So, imagine a situation where the artist has created a work of art with a very specific message. But in every work of art there is also an underlying message, which is “I’m an artist”. You send your main message but at the same time you have also this message – “I’m an artist”. Imagine the reaction of the public, who do react, let’s say, correctly to the first message but wrongly to the second one. And imagine that instead of a reaction corresponding to “Oh, you are an artist!”, you hear a reaction such as “Are you from the Balkans?” Or we can also imagine different variations of this second reaction: “But in case you are from the Balkans, why aren’t you behaving like that?” And I believe that this is a basic situation, a fundamental one, which could help us understand what is the lowest common denominator of “the Balkans”, of the discourse of Balkanism – which is already very well known as a discourse of stigmatization – and of visual arts. This is a problem of perspective. Because visual artists always have to work with a certain type of representation and perspective – perspective is part of every possible type of representation strategy. On the other hand, Balkanism as a discourse, as a strategy of representation, is always a perspectivist discourse, always a presentation and a representation from a certain type of perspective.

Perspective is very powerful – it is the perspective of power, and the Balkans are constructed as a region because of some such, let’s say Western, powerful perspective of representation. So, we have two perspectives: that of the visual artist and that of the dis- course of Balkanism. In my view the most important thing is to develop an abstract kind of combinatory thinking first – to see the possible combinations between these two possible perspectives. And the second issue is the consequences – what could be the consequences from these possible combinations.

First, let’s imagine that the perspective of the artist is a universal one. He or she does not feel Bulgarian or Balkan but a universal person, who sends universal messages. A Balkan perspective of the audience in front of him will, in a sense, put this potential into question. There would be a potential conflict between the universal perspective of the artist and the non-universal perspective of the audience that has different expectations. Imagine that the artist consciously plays the role of the Balkan artist. Then the perspective of the artist and the perspective of the expecting audience will be at least corresponding to each other. There are also other possible combinations of the two perspectives; for instance, a cross perspective: the artist is looking in one direction and the audience is looking in a totally different direction and there is a kind of, let’s say, a ninety-degree angle between the two perspectives. A confrontation is also possible – for example, the perspective of the audience may be that of Balkanism while the perspective of the artist may be that of anti-Balkanism. And we can imagine a lot of other types of possible combinations.

So, the moral of this whole story that I’m trying to tell you – we have to learn to communicate. Miglena just told us that this is very important and that such was the ideology of the 1980s but I believe that this ideology is topical and very important today as well. We have to be able to communicate and to use all the different combinations between the two perspectives in order to be really successful, in order to be able to send his or her messages.

Because the right thing to do is to be flexible: to use the confrontation possibility in one case, and the universal perspective in another one, to learn to sell one’s own product according to the exotic expectations of the audience or to just deny it and be totally different. There is no single right answer. There are a lot of possibilities and in order to be flexible one has to study all of them.

Hristijan Panev:

I think we do not have to go to the 1980s in order to learn to communicate again. I think we knew then and we know now how to communicate. But because of the situation in the 1980s and the very recent history we may have got a bit rusty... Or we would like this understanding to be forgotten. Looking back in history, I’ll take my family as an example: my father lived in a house divided in two parts. It was a big house. My grandfather was a priest, a protoerei-stavrophor, which is a very high rank for a priest. On the other side, there was a second entrance to the house where a hodja – a Muslim priest – lived. So, the kids of the hodja and my father were the best of friends, neighbors sharing the same house. The hodja and the priest, representatives of two religions that are so different, lived in the same house. They did know how to live together. Another example: in Macedonia there is this professor in the Faculty of Philosophy and you probably know him. His name is Branko Sarkanjac. He is a philosopher and political scientist. He did a project called “Komshu Kapidjik”, which is a typical Turkish word signifying the little door in the fence between the yards of two neighbors. We still use this word. We use other words as well but this one I take for granted... It means something like “Neighbor’s Domain”, I think, though I couldn’t translate it into Macedonian because I use that same Turkish expression. I grew up with it so I don’t know how to translate it. We could discuss more words, such as like “seir” for example. It really is a problem for me not to translate, but somehow to explain to English people what “seir” really means. How do you translate the situation where you stop to see that somebody has a problem, but you don’t stop to help him or her? I couldn’t explain it. In the Balkans everybody is after the “seir”. So, about this project “The Komshu Kapidjik”... In one particular quarter in Ochrid there were Macedonians, Greeks, Valachians, Turks, Gypsies – and everybody lived happily. This was until the 1980s when they realized that they have different nationalities and peoples. They had their problems too, and they had different religions. But the thing is that when it was Christmas or when it was Easter, everybody went to the Orthodox or the Catholic temple – they all ate Easter eggs, and it didn’t matter if they were Muslims or of some other religion. And vice versa – when it was a Muslim holiday, everybody went to the Muslim temple to eat baklava. There was no difference... That’s why I took my family as an example because my father was the same with me – it didn’t matter that my grandfather was a priest, my father would say: “OK, go and eat baklava, spend time with your friends”. He could speak Turkish then, not now – his Turkish has got rusty, as he hasn’t practiced for a long time.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

Thank you Hristijan. And thanks go to Macedonia for providing all of its neighboring countries with the opportunity to have claims, to be jealous and to claim ownership over what happens in Macedonia. You know, especially Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Albania in a way. Everybody wants to have a piece of Macedonia...

Diana Popova:

I’ll start with what Alexander Kiossev said which impressed me very much. He stated that the Balkan artists should use all the combinations between the notions of a universal artist and a Balkan artist. I think that this is too cynical. His advice, as I far as I could understand, is to sell all these combinations when and where this is possible. I would add that theatre and film directors have been using all these possibilities for years. They are selling special Balkan features in Germany, for example, because Germany probably has the greatest interest in special Balkan features. And when they come back to Bulgaria, it is quite interesting to observe how really boring their plays actually are. I mean that these special features, which are interesting in Europe, are definitely not interesting in Bulgaria – we know them well because meanwhile they have turned into clichés. And when you advise Balkan artists to use all the combinations and especially to play Balkan artists I would ask what the advice would be to the Balkan public? Would such works be also interesting and important for the region itself?

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

I could comment on the works that are being shown now. This is a work by an artist from Bosnia – Alma Sulijevic. It’s a kind of performance. She is professionally trained deminer. She is defusing land mines in Bosnia and as soon as she has defused one square meter of Bosnian land from the land mines she sells the cleared soil in plastic bags. This is an artist from the Balkans who is selling something very concrete – pieces of recent history. Who is next?

Alexander Kiossev:

I believe that the local market has its own specificity. We have to find the best possible commodity for it. And to my mind that would be a specimen of the Western gaze – different works of art demonstrating and embodying the Western way of looking at this place.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

Now the game gets rough – to sell or not to sell. That is a really serious question – do we sell out or do we not, and what is it that we can sell? Years ago Alexander Kiossev was part of a very important intellectual circle called “Synthesis”, I believe, and I was also part of this circle for a short time. I think it was in 1993 when Alexander Kiossev and I were in Munich where I had an exhibition. He came to visit me from Goettingen where he was teaching and we had a great time. But his interesting comment at the time was that all of us who had worked in the late 1980s on the reality of late socialism were selling the corpse of communism piece by piece to the Western audience. Alexander, would you like to comment on that? Do you remember it?

Alexander Kiossev: I do. Something has been sold, something not...

Maria-Thalia Carras:

Well, now from a Greek perspective in terms of the Balkans... I think Greek artists are in a difficult situation because they feel that they are represented neither in the Balkans, nor in a European context. That’s what they feel – in a conspiratorial way of thinking. They are neither exotic in a typically Balkan way nor European in terms of being readily involved in the market economy, they are not marketable like the rest of Europe. So, paradoxically, they are rarely included in large scale exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale or Documenta, nor are they shown within a Balkan framework. And actually that’s not so bad because most Greeks do not think of themselves as Balkan. They wouldn’t say they feel very Balkan, they would say they feel European. They are aware of the Balkans physically, geographically and in terms of business investments but emotionally they do not feel so linked.

I will now show the work of two or three artists. They are young and very politically aware. A new generation of Greek artists is trying to work in Greece and not to leave it, which has been the trend for years. Moreover, they already have a “universal” language. I’ll start with Vangelis Vlahos who has been working over the last few years on a project that has to do with the American Embassy in Greece built by Gropious in the 1950s. What is interesting about the building is that it is made of marble – a reference to the Greek ideal of marble in ancient times – and that it had a very open structure. It had a library on the ground floor, where everybody was welcome. As time went by, this building became more and more introspective and closed to the outside world. Last year even the area next to the embassy was turned into a pedestrian zone in order to protect it. Indeed policemen have started to control the whole block around it. Vangelis Vlahos has collected every single article or document that has ever been written and printed concerning the embassy. One of his first projects was to note the appearance of the words “Power” or “imperialism” in all the texts he had amassed. The project he is now working on is recreating the architectural model of the building by Gropious.

So, on the one hand we have the documentation which Vlahos has collected, which at times is very emotional, and on the other hand there are these architectural models that are cold and static.

There are a lot of Greek artists now, especially women, who work with performance and use their bodies. Most of them work in non-gallery spaces. The artists are outside the gallery and museum systems. The artist whose performance I’ll show, is called Georgia Sagri. One of the projects she did was that she inhabited a shop, more precisely, its shop window for one week. She kept on accumulating more and more objects, which she would live with and which everybody has seen her live with. In the end, in something like an act of aggression, she picked them all up, put them in plastic bags and started handing them to people in the cars passing by. Another project she did recently was very effective – she tied her hands and legs together and crawled from the market in central Athens to Omonia Square. This is mostly a red-light district, an area with quite a lot of drugs and so on. The artist litererally crawled trough this entire area with her hands and legs tied up in a symbolic gesture. It probably took her about three hours... This work was done about 6-7 months ago... During the performance there were people who tried to stop her and to untie her hands... The police did not react, they just observed what was happening and some people tried to untie her hands... but she did not allow them. Here is another work she recently did – she worked for a whole month in a gallery called Gazon Rouge. She went there every day throughout the duration of the exhibition and at some point she filled the whole space with materials that are alien to the gallery, earthen materials like earth and plaster; indeed she covered the whole gallery floor with plaster and then literally and painstakingly blew her path through the plaster so that she could physically traverse the gallery space.

Another artist is Fani Sophologi and of course there are others who work using the language of performances, mostly on the streets and other open spaces. These works are related to Athens as quite an aggressive city to live and work in.

Iara Boubnova:

We had a very lively discussion in this corner while watching the video. I will try to explain very briefly what we are talking about here... For example, Veronica Tzekova here, who is a participant in the show in Kassel, insists that she does not care about the artist being Balkan or non-Balkan. Because, as she said, something could be Balkan, perhaps, but could just as well be non-Balkan. My question was if the point was not about how the artist perceives herself. There is this specific thing – marketability – firstly, in terms of the marketability of ideas and, secondly, the real market, let’s say in terms of both ideas and works. I really would like her to say something but she is somehow against it, she is answering with only one word... We started with a point that Maria-Thalia made which grabbed our interest – that Greek artists and Greek art perceive themselves as representing Europe on the Balkans. So, Greek artists and the Greek art scene have a greater interest in being European or they already feel European even without being of interest to Europe. In our case the situation is different because we are represented, I mean Bulgarian art and artists are. Let’s say that we are represented internationally only as Bulgarian, which means Balkan, exotic, specific, marginal, you name it. But never as mainstream whatever it means.

Veronika Tzekova:

At any discussion about this Balkan artistic identity I feel like a sort of exile maybe because I’ve been in such a situation both in my personal and in my professional life. Being an exile has become something natural that I deal with on a daily basis. That’s why I told Iara that for me it’s not a problem to be categorized as a Balkan artist and not in another way. Otherwise, it is a problem, of course. Because it gives me another task to work on, not only to work as an artist but also to work in order to break through this barrier. It turns out to be awkward, at least for me. I also told her that when I worked abroad as an artist, I was considered Bulgarian. I don’t know about Balkan, maybe at certain times yes, but the attitude was different. Ever since I’m back in Bulgaria I’m definitely considered Balkan. Maybe because my work as an artist is changing, I guess; because it is work made in Bulgaria and it is derived from Bulgaria (meaning the Balkans). I don’t know. I don’t want to be seen as so politically involved. For me this whole story is rather personal. Anyway, I feel an exile in many ways. Whoever can handle it, they can survive, I guess. And who cannot... I want to say something about Ivan Moudov’s work, this collection that he is making. This is not what I consider a Balkan work. I have heard of several not so similar works but all by Western artists. I would try to categorize it as “institutional art” not as a Balkan piece.

Ivan Moudov:

Of course, there is something like a label ‘a Balkan artist’ that is stuck to all of us. There is no way to avoid this. So, the only way we can do it is to use it. That’s it. I mean that the things that people expect from us, OK, they are available. I’m available as a Balkan artist.

Iara Boubnova:

Everything they expect from us is available – did you hear this? This is how a young artist feels.

Ivan Moudov:

Yes, that’s what I like in this project of mine, the theft of fragments from artworks. These are these “colonial” things that I steal and I “preserve” in my “museum” in Bulgaria.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

I would like to go back to the “identity overkill” aspect. Otherwise we are losing the rhythm, I think. As for Ivan Moudov’s “whatever they expect from us, it’s available” I’d like to give an example. It has to do with the opening ceremony, a big formal reception, for one of the largest shows of contemporary art from the Balkans that took place in the spring of 2003 in a small town near Vienna, actually in a private collection museum. It was a show titled “Blood and Honey”, which some people say is how the word Balkan translates from Turkish. So, there was an opening reception, which was supposed to be attended by the president of Austria. Before going to Vienna, all the participating artists, who were invited to the opening, were asked to attend in evening dress. It was easy for the female artists because they have nice dresses anyway. But for male artists it was very difficult to find an appropriate suit. I don’t have such a suit and I borrowed one from the former Austrian cultural attaché in Sofia. He gave me his best suit for the opening because that same evening he was involved with the release of the Austrian hostages who came back from Algeria. He had to be in Salzburg and the suit was available for me. The point is – how do you fight back when you are stigmatized? And my example is from that reception. The only male artists who showed up as they were, in their rather kitschy clothes, were the boys from Albania – Anri Sala and Edi Muka, as well as from Kosovo, Erzen Shkololli and Sislej Xhafa. They came to the opening literally as they were – the way they dress to go to pubs, or to just hang out. I should also tell you that we had been warned – if we don’t have appropriate suits, we will not be allowed in, we would not be allowed to offend the eyes of the Austrian president and the other officials. However, when these guys showed up as they were, of course they were allowed in. They could have been kicked out. In a way, they refused to deliver what was required. They had simply decided to play it their way. I don’t know if that was spontaneous or organized – I think it was organized. The funny thing, though, was that on the morning after this opening we were preparing to leave the hotel in Vienna. We were having breakfast in the hotel and I noticed that one of the artists who had come to the formal reception in a T-shirt and faded blue jeans, Adrian Paci from Albania, came to the breakfast table dressed up in a very fancy dark brown suit, which he had had all along. I thought that this was a kind of reversed stigmatization. I feel that if you are stigmatized it’s better to accept the stigma and then to try to reverse it. My own private strategy for reversed stigmatization is that whenever I am in a German speaking country and I’m asked to participate in a conference or in a symposium or anything that has to do with speaking in public and people have difficulties with pronouncing my name, in order to make it easier for them, I just say that for this particular conference I would respond to the name Helmut. And then all of a sudden they start pronouncing my name correctly. Kiossev wants to say something, I was hoping for that.

Alexander Kiossev:

I only said that there are different strategies.

Kiril Prashkov:

I wanted to respond to the video shown by Maria-Thalia. On the other hand, the points Alexander Kiossev made fit in very well obviously, firstly that something sells and something does not, and secondly, that there are different strategies. I asked Maria-Thalia if the performance of the female artist who was moving through the city with her hands and legs tied up, was permitted? Did the police do something? Her answer was no. Maybe this was what made me think that the performance must have taken place on the Balkans. The authorities were somehow so shocked by the act, they see it as something so abnormal, that they don’t dare respond and they let the performance reach its logical end without interfering. I’m not so sure that outside the Balkans such a performance would have the same “fate”. I think that we have heard a lot about performances in European cities, which had been stopped by the police if a special and definitive permission for the event to take place had not been obtained. This makes the performance very close to the mentality here, just like I think that in Sofia I can do whatever I want.

Further on, two topics – “something sells, something does not” and “everything they want from us, it is available”, to use Ivan Moudov’s words. I remember the work, which was quoting graffiti from the UN/Dutch barracks in Srebrenica, the work of Sejla Kameric “Bosnian Girl” (2003) saying, as I remember: “No teeth...? A mustache...? Smells like shit...? A Bosnian girl!”. The graffiti obviously “refers” to something that was “available” to these Dutch UN soldiers who were in Srebrenica in order to defend the people in the enclave. Then on the opposite end of the scale we have the firm opinion of people from Western Europe who come to Bulgaria and respond to the way young Bulgarian women are dressed. Every time they think that the young women are dressed like prostitutes. The variability of the expectations about a commodity that is supplied, and of its demand, is really amazing.

Vladia Mihailova:

The big question for me comes down to what this Balkan identity actually is. Is it a kind of a wound or specific problems in visual arts? I think that this problem has its political side because it is also a problem of presentation. I think that the state also produces clichés. The problem of Balkan identity – what it is and whether we have it, is a problem of producing and reproducing cultural clichés. So, cultural policy emerges as a problem as well. I think that we have not talked about the production of clichés on the level of the state and especially in the field of cultural policy.

Uros Djuric:

So, you want to hear something about the clichés, a comprehensive analysis? Well, if you ask me I don’t care about them but I know them very well. It would be an extremely boring conversation if we talk about clichés, which we all know. A cliché exists in order to trivialize something that is already trivialized. I’m not interested in the stereotypes that are coming from the state but in the fact that the state is a real entity and that this is something I cannot avoid. We are all educated in the state school system and most of us have accepted the scientific reasons for having such clichés. History as a science is a kind of an agreement of certain monopolies to picture themselves as presenters of the absolute truth. But you can see how this “absolute truth” changes from time to time. All of that is rubbish. Most of you know why it is rubbish.

I’d like to move on to something else. I come from Serbia and as most of you know, my name is Uros Djuric. The point is that I didn’t expect my life to be such chaos. When I was twenty and I was studying, most of the people from my generation in former Yugoslavia, I think, didn’t expect this kind of destruction that we all experienced. This destruction was a good field for the return of most of the clichés that already existed throughout the 19th and 20th century and it was a proof that the clichés have a sound “scientific” basis. This kind of destruction has never happened in history. I want to point out that when I was invited by René Block to participate in his show I didn’t think of myself as someone who was invited because he was recognized as a Balkan artist. I hoped, and the same goes for my ego too, that I was invited because I’m a good artist whatever that means. Why am I saying this? Because this is of key importance for me. Because when I was thinking about myself as an artist I never really tried to question the context, which seems so important today. This is the case especially with the shows when I was younger and promotion was important. Now art is somehow subordinated to the context which seems to be much more important than art itself. I don’t particularly care about telling you the truth.

When I see all the Balkan shows, I really cannot go into the reasons why artists from a certain region are presented and their art promoted. A few years ago it was a big hit to promote Scandinavian artists but no one in Scandinavia was asked why this was happening. They just accepted it. I think that such a question is a total lack of understanding. The problem of Balkan societies is that the Balkans as well as the societies themselves are somehow societies of petty profit. When René Block invited me... René, I never had the opportunity to really talk to you, especially after the show, because it was such a big mess and some “bodyguard” who was dressed and disguised like the Bosnian artist Maja Bajevic, as I remember, was always around you... Afterwards I was also thinking for a long time and trying to write you a letter, I was writing letters to you in my head in which I wanted to say how much I liked everything. Why? Because somewhere around the time you invited me to come and participate in the show I was reading a monograph on Jeff Koons published by Taschen. There is a big bibliography there and I saw that Jeff Koons refers to a text by you as one of the key texts about his art. I don’t think that Jeff Koons wondered whether to take a text by Rene Block in his bibliography or not. So, I’m thinking the same way as Jeff Koons, although maybe I’m not in his position at the moment. Maybe I’ll never be. But the whole idea is that I want to be a successful artist like Jeff Koons and I would be an ass to even think about rejecting your invitation. Because I see that this is an opportunity as much as Jeff Koons would. But nobody asks Jeff Koons why he accepts it; it’s just something acceptable. However, everybody scrutinizes this show and why I accepted taking part in it. Well, it’s just because of that! I want to be part of the art scene, recognized as a good artist, and good artists are recognized in big shows, and the big shows happen in big institutions... And just ten years ago my life was hell. But ten years after that I exhibit in the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. It’s not that bad.

Of course, not everybody think that way. So, now I’ll show you the reaction of a very young artist who’s known as Zampa di Leone. In fact, no one really knows who Zampa di Leone is. He is a guy based in Belgrade – this is for sure, and for the last twelve months he has been e-mailing us with very interesting messages where in a very sophisticated way, something like a cynical Balkan Alexander Brener, he is trying to challenge the whole context of being a successful artist. There it is: “In the Arse of the Balkans”. This is something that you can see on the Internet... You know what actually Zampa di Leone is? It’s a famous protection system for cars, some protecting gas or something. So, this is an anthology titled “In the Arse of Balkans”...

Iara Boubnova:

Uros, what’s the conclusion?

Uros Djuric:

There will be a conclusion...

Iara Boubnova and others:

It says on the Bulgarian Parliament “In unity is power“.

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

Just to remind our foreign guests – on the Bulgarian parliament there is a slogan saying: In unity is power. But it’s a quotation from the Belgian parliament, I believe.

Maria-Thalia Carras:

Just one thing. When I was in Serbia that was a sign of fascism – how do you comment on this?

Uros Djuric:

Well, when I was in India... The cross can be a sign of whatever. And because you were pointing out clichés, we are back there again. No matter whether you want it a cliché is always used for conquering, for taking money in one way or another. I like this one, though...

Iara Boubnova:

I didn’t know what this symbol means but unfortunately it means something so familiar that I’m not fascinated. Maybe René would answer or make a comment?

René Block:

Yes, I’ll make a comment on Uros’ words to make him happy... You are always invited as a very good artist. Not as a Serbian, but as a good artist. And, well, we have never invited Jeff Koons in Fridericianum. Maybe before I start drinking I should tell you a story about photography. Photography is very important on the Balkans and in Bulgaria too it seems. A story from today: I went with Natasha Ilic sightseeing in Sofia. We were walking in the streets; she made a lot of photographs of interesting situations. Then we took the tram to go back. We sat down in the tram; usually we go by tram without having tickets. So, we sat down in the tram and for some reason I saw that somebody bought a ticket from the driver in front. I said, well, I’d go and buy tickets in the front. So, I did. And Natasha showed me a little machine above our heads. I put the ticket in but nothing happened. I took the ticket out. In about forty-five seconds a guy came, a ticket inspector. I showed him the tickets I’d just bought, he took them and he showed us how it works. And then he opened his pocket, took out two other tickets and said: “Ten leva” – because we were traveling without tickets. So, we started a very heated discussion. We refused to pay, because we bought tickets, we just didn’t know how to perforate them... At some point I said to Natasha to get out of the tram, we didn’t want to go with this tram any further. And the ticket inspector said: “I’ll come with you; I’m taking you to the police”. So, he came out with us holding my arm. Then there was a corner and a column. He pressed me against this column and went on with our argument. Then I had this idea – “Natasha, please make a photo of us”. She took out the camera and made a shot of us. He was so angry, he hid behind us. Then he ran away. We went on too but we realized after about fifty meters that we are just in front of our hotel. It was absolutely perfect. So, always have a camera with you!

Luchezar Boyadjiev:

This is a reversed stigmatization. René, can we summarize that you exercised a spontaneous act of reversed stigmatization? You were stigmatized as a violator, a bloody foreigner, for the record!

I would like to give the floor to our last “competitor” for Balkan fame and glory – an artist from Romania, Dan Perjovschi, who is famous for making drawings all over the world. These are drawings that are very communicative. Dan is also known to have mixed feelings of identity – when he is asked, “Are you an artist?” he says, “No, I’m a cartoonist!” When he is asked, “Are you a cartoonist?” he says “No, I’m an artist!”

Dan Perjovschi:

As you see, this is the way I describe myself. There are numerous things I have to do and few things I like to do. I am interested in the region where I live, which is now so splintered, but also in the United States and in Europe. But I’m also interested in more general issues, and this is what we will be talking about in a moment. I will show you a project that I did in Essen, Germany, last year. This was in a former colliery in a town in the former Ruhr region where collieries have been shut down for some years, and that is what my own country is facing now.

This is how it looks; it’s a sort of a response to international, national, local and personal events. I’ll try to be as simple as possible. I’ll try to talk about my own tragedies and clichés, but also about the Western ones... What you see now takes place in the streets of Kassel where I chose to be out of the show, in the streets, so that nobody could bother me with questions about whether or not I am Balkan. I describe myself as a political artist with a political agenda, in part because this is the story of my country, which not only lived under a dictatorship but which also liked it. I chose to do the presentation you saw a moment ago, about the time in our culture when art is institutionalizing itself. The reality in my country is that now democracy means Johnny Walker being advertised on the former Securitate (Secret Service) building. As you all know, Johnny Walker’s logo is “Keep Walking”. For me the “keep walking” of the Secret Service and the dictatorship means that in the most horrific building on earth, second largest only to the Pentagon, which is the palace of the dictatorship and which is the Parliament now, which is seen
from all parts in Bucharest, hosts now the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. And this is the guy who made this decision, the prime minister, a very famous hunter, who looks like the other hunter, the very famous one, you know...

Luchezar and others:

And like Zhivkov too... (Todor Zhivkov, the last communist leader in Bulgaria. Tr.)

Dan Perjovschi:

One quarter of my Bucharest was destroyed so that this building could be constructed. Not only was Bucharest torn down but architects and artists were also used as slaves for this thing to be created. So, how can this thing, which represents the politics of my country, also represent the arts? Inside it looks like this... or like this.

Some months ago one of the protests of the civil society was addressing the fact that even now the opening of the files of the Secret Service in my country is still hampered. The protest involved making a circle around this huge building, the second largest on Earth. They succeeded in making this kind of a circle but according to my own personal philosophy we prefer a circle like this one...

I’ll show you some images from a project, which my wife Lia Perjovschi is doing in the last ten years. It’s called “The Archive of Contemporary Art”, which basically means “Reserving Space for Criticism and Debate”. It keeps record of the visitors to our studio in Bucharest, a lot of people...

It’s a project always using art as a background but it is basically about an intimate space where you can discuss freely. In our case, it is the Balkans, very frustrating and very interesting at the same time. The last talk we did was with very young curators and artists from Romania. When later on we presented these young artists in Museums Quartier in Vienna, we presented a sort of production cycle, such as postcards, catalogues, etc., like little fragments. That’s because I strongly believe that this is a time when we have to choose between institutions, between one thing and many little other things. In my country where you don’t even have a proper life or production facilities and you have nowhere to show, in my opinion having a big, very big museum is good for nothing.

This is another space in Timisoara run by three young female artists. It is called “Karta”, which in Romanian means, “Map”. And you find details on in that website. This is a very new initiative – the web scene, which is organized also by very young curators and theoreticians by using their own money. This is an art magazine, a private one, published by an artist in Cluj in Romania. It’s called “Idea, Art and Society” which I strongly recommend to you. The second issue is already out now. By the way, this is the national flag of Romania, the red, yellow and blue, and it is due to the fact that the city where the magazine is published is run by a nationalist city council. I’d like to mention also Sean Snyder’s project... He identified one of the nouveaux riches in Romania who in the 1980s was obsessed by the American TV series “Dallas”. This man “recreated” the Dallas ranch in a Romanian city. He recreated it the way it looks in the series but we all know that the TV camera makes the space bigger – so, the copy is bigger than the original. Here is the main actor from the TV series who was visiting this copy... The same person
also built up an Eiffel Tower – a little one. And I’m coming back to the Parliament in Bucharest again... This is the Museum of Contemporary Art – here it is also recreated as an enlarged version. Looks like that...

In 1993 I tattooed on my shoulder the name of my country – it was at a performance festival and it was a time when we talked a lot about identity. Ten years later at the same festival, on its fourth edition, I promised the curator that I would take it away. And I did. I did this within the show “In the Gorges of the Balkans”. There are just several dots left now... I want to add one more thing – I think any identity is better than no identity at all.

Petia Kabakchieva:

We have a post-communist identity, we have a lot of identities, and this is the problem. This is somehow like the choice between communist/post-communist: why choose one at all? We are just playing with them...

Basak Senova:

We have catastrophes and traumas all the time and afterwards we prefer to have amnesia. Yet, it is a very schizophrenic situation. To illustrate this situation, there is a work by Erhan Muratoglu called “Blatta(nt) Orientalis(t)”, 2003. It is a computer generated animation with 3D oversized cockroaches trying to find an exit in window frames, running around hasty, gathering in corners and behaving like a herd with no organization. The name of the work involves with a black humour built through the work. When the historical background of the region is taken into consideration, it seems that every time there is a necessity to represent something from Turkey. And every time there is the real challenge and the risk of being incapable of presenting something that fits the Balkans. We are so mixed up and we have already forced to fuse everything, including differences under the unitarian state policy. I’m not being apologetic. But the reality we are living in is temporary.

In this context, I have a question; it would be very kind of René Block to reflect on the fact that he has particularly collaborated with lots of Turkish/Kurdish artists from Diyarbakir in his Balkan show. I have no objection to Diyarbakir, yet I wonder in which context such a region which is associated with the Middle East, could be considered as a part of a Balkan Scene.

René Block:

That is simply part of my idea. The title of the exhibition is “In the Gorges of the Balkan”. It is a quotation from a very famous book I red as a child with the same title, written by a very famous writer from the end of 19th c., Karl May. The story in the book is how he started a journey from Cairo, via Baghdad and Kurdistan and then he ended up in the Balkans. That’s all.

Kiril Prashkov:

I’ll take the liberty to say a word. You know already that Iara comes from Moscow and some of the Balkan realities were not so clear to her when she arrived in Bulgaria. In 1991 when the first war in the Gulf started there was a comment on Bulgarian TV that the nearest battle point of that war is around 1500 km from Sofia. Her response – as she had come from a much larger country than the Balkans are – was: “What, only 1500 km?” For a Muscovite this means the war is very close, almost entering the city. I was trying to explain to her that this territory in Kuwait and Iraq where the war was had been part of the same empire about one century ago, together with the territory where we live now. That somehow in people’s minds this is a place, which is very close even though considering the size of the Balkans, it is quite far away. This was my response when I saw Kurdish artists presented in the catalogue of a Balkan show. But I think that the explanation could be even deeper and not only through the novel of Karl May – I think that somehow a lot of people, including you, René, see a similarity in the trauma...

Dimitar Kamburov:

What I was going to say was intended for an earlier stage of this conference. I was wondering about the meaning of the word “reunion”, which is part of the name of the conference, Balkan reunion. It is quite obvious that there are two attitudes about the idea of a reunion. One of them sees it as a reunion of something that has been separated, dissolved and this is the first perspective – as if there was something like a union that has been lost and the question is to recover this union. But it seems just absurd. Why? Because if we are talking about the level of high culture, this has never been an issue, it never happened – we never had any kind of union. And in this sense we couldn’t have a reunion – of something that never existed in the first place. On the other hand, if we are talking about the lower level, so to speak, of our unification, it is again impossible to have a reunion, but from a totally different perspective: this union has never been lost and in this sense again re-union is impossible. What I was trying to think about was the implication of the title – I mean the creative mistake in the title is very much like looking for that part, which combines the higher and the lower parts of our thinking, the mind and the lower parts of our bodies, so to say. I’d say that this is probably art. But here the differences commence. I have been working in the field of literature, film and music for quite some time. From my perspective, I somehow try to avoid the visual arts. I would say that it is because my feeling is that the issue of the Balkans is not posed in quite the same way both in visual arts, and in the discourse on arts as it is in my own field. I would also say that you are very lucky – talking, thinking and creating art based on a kind of a Balkan idea. Why? Because your representation definitely exists as one of artists and it is really yours, of creatures coming from the Balkans and nothing else. There is no subject, form or content that could be defined as particularly focused on the Balkan issue.

On the other hand, it is not so difficult to make a comparison between the best works in literature, music, and cinema and in the visual arts. It will be quite simple to say that you are much freer in this respect. I’d say that the idea of using the Balkans and Balkanness when you are approaching Balkan issues, is quite marketable. But the very idea of constructing a kind of local philosophy, or a local aesthetic agenda is something that I don’t see you achieving that well. My final point would be – we are talking very much about communication and information as if it was something that is positive by definition. It is a funny attitude after all the books and intellectual projects that discuss exactly the chains of communication, the chains of information. And of course you know about the book “Empire” and the very negative attitude it expresses with regard to information and communication that are available. We are much too much caught up in the structures, in the infrastructures of our world by being so positive about and obsessed by the idea of being together, being communicative, being informative and so on. From my perspective the real problem is not that the Balkans are perceived negatively, or as a negative construction – the problem is that they don’t exist, they are absent, they are an empty space, a blind spot. This is the problem at least from a discursive point of view. From your point of view, you somehow manage to deal with it, to make your case as Balkan artists. This is a great advantage with regard to discursive reality. I propose that from the perspective of the United States or England on the matter, where I spent some time recently, we just don’t exist with regard to the discursive field of this Balkan reality. So, you are just lucky.

Uros Djuric:

Could you tell us what exists? What do you mean by Balkan reality in America? I don’t understand this. Another thing: if it doesn’t exist, then what is its reception, if there is any reception? Because this is the key point: is there any reception in America?

Dimitar Kamburov:

That’s what I’m saying. The point of the negative attitude is a kind of a positive perception. From our point of view, regarding the Western perception of us, the problem is that we just don’t exist, that we are an empty and blind space. That’s what I’m saying. The negative attitudes follow. This is the great difference: the community of visual artists has passed through the borders much better than the other fields and disciplinary communities and that’s my point.

Dan Perjovschi:

I’m very much involved with the media, the newspapers and from my experience it is better to have no news because news from this area is always bad. So, if there is no news it means that everything is OK. Second: in the last 15 years I’ve changed the subject matter, reality has forced me to explain myself. My wife and I are now in a program called “Dizzident” – from “dizzy” in English, because we don’t know who exactly we are opposing, we are this kind of dissidents now.

Dimitar Kamburov:

My point is just the opposite – I have already expressed it. It is much better to exist, even in a negative way, rather than not to exist. I would say that this is a Bulgarian problem maybe more than a problem for all the other Balkan countries or the countries, which are partly affiliated to the Balkans. But the way in which we don’t exist is really dramatic, I would say.

Uros Djuric:

There is one parallel, which is interesting because I would like to talk as a recipient. Last month I had an opportunity to present in Belgrade the so-called young Nordic literary people. Anyway, in Belgrade the reception was very close to the way the west perceives us. So, we have our own perception of the Scandinavian countries. If you ask them, and I’m talking about Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark – most of us here have this general view on them. I’m sure that no one here has any idea about the little details that make them different. Like we know about such details between ourselves. So, it is the same but the other way around. I asked them: “Do you consider yourselves Scandinavians? Do you say about yourself – I come from Scandinavia?” They said: “No”. They would say: “I come from Stockholm, from Sweden, from Iceland” and so on. Sometimes they say that they are from the Nordic countries. In practice, you cannot really have such a big influence on how other people see your position. You cannot affect the way you look to someone. This is not something that you could really push forward.

But I disagree with you on the story about the Balkan reunion. I found this phrase quite cynical. Balkan reunion is a never-ending story, which historically has been positioned and tried out so many times, especially in the times of big empires like the Ottoman Empire. Then there was the idea for a Balkan union in the 19th century; the idea of a union before the First World War (that’s why there were all those Balkan wars); there was the idea of a union even in 1946-1947 after Second World War. As you remember, in Greece there was a very big revolution at that time, a communist revolution, and a civil war... There is some kind of a Balkan union in terms of the Balkans as a Permanently Unsuccessful Project.

Krasimir Terziev:

I saw the presentations and heard all the positions but I think that somehow most of the presentations were actually showing local contexts, local issues. And they were emphasizing it. At the same time we have gathered here under the label of the Balkans, under the topic of Balkan identity. I’m wondering whether the real situation is that we are working in a very specific local context and every one of the artists here is concerned about his/her own context – the context in which he or she is working. Whether it is possible to have a show of all these contexts without a label, what if there is no such thing as Balkan identity? I wonder whether it is possible to have the same show without such a title or a label – what kind of show it would be then?

Iara Boubnova:

This is one of the issues – is it possible to have a show if you don’t have a proper prearranged title? From my point of view it is not so easy. Usually you are supposed to have a title. Somehow it happened that the big Balkan shows were organized outside the Balkan region. I wonder if we are not all the time actually trying to seduce Vienna and Austria into being part of the Balkans, at least as a historical influence?

From my point of view the interesting realization after this nice table talk that we had for more than 4 hours, is that, honestly, I’m not sure that we could answer the questions: what’s good and what’s bad; whether we have a common Balkan identity or not; whether we could have the reality of this Balkan identity represented so that everybody is satisfied with the kind of presentation. I would rather like to introduce another notion, which is situated for me beyond any notion of genuine identity – because it insists on specific relationships. This notion belongs to Victor Miziano, a curator from Moscow, who once described the group of artists he is working with as a “confidential community”. I like this description very much. I like the possibility to use the notion of the “confidential community” as a community, which, I think, is doing precisely what we are doing here.

We are trying to figure out what part, type and things we belong to beside the expectations and impositions coming from the external other. I would like to show you a short fragment from a work by Kalin Serapionov who is working all day here as a cameraman. The title of the video is “The Hot Soup and My Home Community” and he did it some years ago. He filmed all the participants in one project we did in Munich in 1998. He cooked for us a very hot and spicy soup and invited every one of us, one after the other, to eat his soup. He filmed and put all nine of us on a single projection. So, you have different people eating this soup. We talked a lot about how and what happens in the work, and how people doing the same thing are actually doing something different. How all of this generates a very homely feeling, this very specific feeling of domesticated artistic behavior, which is what my favorite “confidential community” is all about.

I hope that outside the political expectations and the specific burden of geopolitical interests we can still produce among ourselves a “confidential community” of people who are living/working close to each other and who are sharing common food, pleasures and entertainment.

For those who still don’t know our conference continues tomorrow. But tomorrow we have invited our guests to visit the actual Balkan Mountain Range on a one-day trip. This is a very specific pilgrimage. The invitation is very important to us because all those people whom, geopolitically, we refer to as Balkanians, don’t actually have the privilege of having the mountains that gave the name to the whole peninsula in their back yard... It’s because the Balkan mountain is situated only within the borders of Bulgaria...

Uros Djuric and Hristijan Panev:

A small part is in Serbia!

Iara Boubnova:

Yes, in Serbia as well, a small part... Anyhow, the mountain also has a local name “Stara Planina” but it’s still the Balkan. So, tomorrow we’ll have a chance to visit the Balkan mountains – it’s like a symbolical step to verify the geo-mythology, a step on the mountain and a symbolic demonstration of belonging to a place, a metaphor, an appearance, an understanding, an interpretation and so on. This is where tourism starts and where we have the chance to softly demythologize the discourse of identity – what we have been trying to do here.

I would like to thank everybody who came and spoke here! I also thank René Block and Natasha Ilic for making this meeting possible!

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Last modified on Feb 10, 2021
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