Iara Boubnova is a contemporary art critic and curator based in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the director of the ICA Sofia. Recently she curated the Second Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary art in Ekaterinburg and the First International Contemporary Art Festival in Sofia.
A Skype conversation with Iara Boubnova, critic and curator based in Sofia, Bulgaria
Conversation description below
Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
- Can you start introducing yourself?
- What about the present cultural, social and political present situation in your country?
- What about the present artistic and creative situation in your country?
- How artists and intellectuals can deal with what is happening nowadays in our societies, do we have a role?
- How can you work without being contaminated by what is happening?
- How can we be doing what we are doing in a world that is so much overwhelmed by images, communication, and information? How can we deal with all of these images and information that we get over the social media?
- It is an illusion of connection then?
Tiziana Casapietra: Can you start introducing yourself?
Iara Boubnova: I am the director of the ICA Sofia which is a small but active association of artists and curators and I am curating exhibitions on a regular basis – we do 6/7 shows a year. The last show was an exhibition of a young Bulgarian artist Vikenti Komitski and before we had an exhibition in a private gallery, the Sariev Gallery in Plovdiv, with Nedko Solakov, his son and his father; the show was titled “The Sentimental Show.”
TC: What about the present cultural, social and political present situation in your country?
IB: Concerning the cultural and political situation in Bulgaria, the country is in a very specific void of governing right now. One month ago there were huge protests initially against the increased prices for electricity and heating. Quickly these shifted into protests against the monopolies in these fields. Then the whole situation changed again because very different types of people, political ambitions and interests appeared on the streets manifesting and protesting against the government and the prime minister who ended up resigning. In the last several years we had a very populist government that made a lot of promises and introduced very peculiar cultural policies. Our ex-minister of culture opened new museums and promised to give museums to the people. They started and even funded two museums: one is the so called, Museum for Contemporary Art and the other is the Museum of Socialist Art, and now they are building the so-called “Bulgarian Louvre”…
The problem, and not only for professionals, but for the society as a whole and for its cultural status is that the Museum for Contemporary Art and the Museum of Socialist Art are constructed without any museum planning, viable project and sound concept, and in the case of the so called SAMCA (Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art), without a collection.
So, it is much more a property investment and naming rather than about solving serious problems. That makes the whole system of cultural policies incredibly destructive as a result.
We are still suffering from the same problems that we have suffered from during the last decades. A lot of young cultural producers, artists, musicians and others are leaving the country and move on to other places like Germany and Austria where education is cheaper or at least affordable and they can find their place to stay and make a professional life. This perhaps changed a little bit because in the 1990s people were going to the United States while now they are searching for their place in Europe.
Now we also have more people on the streets; all the parliamentary political parties refuse to take responsibilities.
TC: It is so similar to what is happening in Italy Iara.
IB: Yes, in several places it happened almost at the same time, it was in Greece and now it is in Italy and Bulgaria. It is happening mostly in southern European countries. But in your case and in our case we have a political vacuum which, since it is not happening in one country, seems to be a specific element of the contemporary European Union political landscape and status of politics, representational democracy, etc.
Several of the Eastern European countries that became members of the European Union at a later stage expected that the European Union would be the new chief “ruler”… It was a typically socialist-kind of understanding of what European Union means; it expressed a paternalistic view and expected external solutions to internal problems. The idea is that the European Union is better, older, and more experienced and it will come to help/save us. For a very long time, during this transition period, people were expecting that the European Union would solve problems. If visibly things are not going well in the political decision making or in the growing corruption, the European Union would come and switch it off somehow.
TC: What about the present artistic and creative situation in your country?
IB: We have a new generation of artists that for the first time after 1989 are interested in history and cultural history potentials. Before now art education was in total infancy. Everybody was sure that you certainly do not need education to be an artist. We have a very traditional educational system for artists, such as academies of the 16th-to-19th century type, and there was this strange rupture between what you study, the classical education at the academy and what you end up doing in the real art scene, which is something totally different. So, in the minds of the artists there was of course a conflict; so, slowly the value of art education diminished. You can easily become an artist and be well-known, smart and even rich without any education. For about 15 years artists despised education and the whole structure; artistic knowledge and artistic professionalism seemed to come from other places. Since last year, I started noticing among very young people who are born in the 1980s or even the late 1980s that they are interested and want to work within the history of their own country, which means with the history of Europe. Several projects that critically analyze the socialist past of the country, such as the socialist historical monuments, war monuments, socialist heroes’ monuments and the whole construction of the history of the Bulgarian socialist State through monuments, a program that happened in the late 1970s and the 1980s. We have a nice project published by the young photographer Nikola Mihov titled “Forget Your Past”. We have new young architects who started to pay a lot of attention not to the traditional values-samples of national history like churches or various kinds of antiquities, but who started to recognize the historical values in the 20th century architecture as seen here in the late and provincial but still valuable constructivism, in the neo-classical Stalinist architecture of the 1950s, and then in the socialist brutalism as well. At the same time, there are few artists and people connected to the field of art who are directly involved with the street protests of today. Only a few artists and educated young people are involved in the protests. They are not all that interested in the appearance of political dissatisfaction on the streets. Maybe this means that during these 20-something years after 1989 society succeeded in the production of individualistic ideology much more than before when we had rather communal feeling of belonging to a society.
TC: How artists and intellectuals can deal with what is happening nowadays in our societies, do we have a role?
IB: We have a role but I will tell you my position which may sound conservative and totally not hip. We live in a time when art is being substituted by many other things; art and its message are instrumentalized very often in politics and social affairs. One example is Russia and the case of Pussy Riot. All these incredibly important things that are all the time putting us in a state of urgency; all the time questioning the difference and the border between art and not art, reality and art, art and life and so on. For example, protesters produce their own slogans and sometimes there is a lot of creativity involved in these slogans; they use lots of visual language which is so popular today plus, of course, there is the whole drama of image production. Everybody is making photographs and distributing them; those photos are valuable or not in every case but there is a digital multiplication of images on so on; only some of these are artistic though.
My conservative position is rooted in keeping the aura and symbolical significance of artistic independence. Art will be and still is produced when people feel especially free. Artists can be politically engaged, they can be defending minorities, causes, positions. But when an artist as an individual stops to be independent, to think by him or herself, and starts to compete with the situation, analyze and criticize the reality, what she or he is doing is already more propaganda and less art. I grew up in the context of a very powerful culture of propaganda image production; not all the time these were art images. I think we still keep some sensitivity where art starts to be only propaganda. When art is not instrumentalized or (ab)used as a tool.
Propaganda images come to our territory with the introduction of non-existing problems and with the impossibility to see the real “landscape” of problems. We do not have artists who would deal seriously with the topic of ecology for example. They would do things on this if they would be invited to an exhibition preferably abroad. There are very few people who seriously deal with minorities problems in terms of art; you have to have a need and the ability to find the visual language to talk about these problems. But ultimately, the results can easily be instrumentalized.
That’s why my conservative point of view is that art has to keep its own artiness and its own position as being independent. I still believe that freedom of art production and presentation is a very particular freedom in the contemporary world. Artists have to safeguard the knowledge that first of all they are doing it because they are producing art.
TC: The present social situation in Europe is so heavy. How can you work without being contaminated by what is happening?
IB: You can’t, you are involved, you live this life, and artists are citizens first of all. But the problem for me is that if art is produced as a result of the very specific political demand of the day it has no time to be analytical, to be meaningful; in such case art has no time to reflect, to be produced properly and it is only servicing a cause. Art should not be servicing the news. Art has its own agenda which is very much dependent on how and when you live, of course, because this is your existence as an artist and as a critic and a curator and it is impossible to disconnect those things. But first of all you are doing art.
TC: How can we be doing what we are doing in a world that is so much overwhelmed by images, communication, and information,? How can we deal with all of these images and information that we get over the social media?
IB: I think that one of the difficulties that we all have in terms of the overflow of different images is that we get most of the information visually but we are not learning enough about all those different visual languages. We know our traditions, national and European, we are still very Eurocentric in our understanding of images. In the long term it has to be a different system of education that will devalue a bit the Eurocentric vision of image production: all these things about the author, the individual message, that particular phenomenology. The world is producing images with very different attitude to images as a starting point and function. Images and photos from China, Japan or Korea that people can download somewhere else are produced with different ideas then here in Europe. And those of us who feel challenged or hurt by the amount of photos and different types of images, are maybe still incredibly Eurocentric in our understanding about what such messages are about.
We select by recognition, not by pioneering and discoveries. It is true though – we instrumentalize as well.
It is difficult to give an answer about how to live and to deal with this amount of image production. But there is the capitalist market, which is solving part of the problem by nominating things as more or less important. The ability to produce or recognize objects of desire: this is the main solution for how to either select images intellectually or those images, which are useful on a practical level. I contaminate the world as well, because I am producing images and uploading them sometimes in some social networks… This creates the illusion of connecting to different people.
TC: It is an illusion of connection then?
IB: I would not say social networks are only an illusion. I was born and grew up in the huge city of Moscow; we saw each other, even decades ago, not as often as people living in smaller places only because of the sheer physical difficulty to visit your parents, your siblings, your close friends. Telephone talks were much more important, people were talking on the phone for hours.
I never felt that communication, as well as the “transmission” of feeling as well as feeling being understood as such can only happen when you are watching people in the eye; it can very well happen through words over a distance.
So, I do not feel that social networking is so totally illusionary. Of course, to deal with that you need some knowledge, you need to know how to do it, you need to be selective, and you need to learn not to be vane because you see how many friends you can get. If you are strict you can deal with all that with much more pleasure.
Interview by Tiziana Casapietra