Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

Inside Out

Curating the New Media Culture of Bulgaria

Iliyana Nedkova, 2001

This paper is an attempt to know Bulgarian media arts and culture at the edge of 21st century inside out. Ambitious as it may seem, this unfinished research project is conducted from the curatorial perspective of a part-time insider of old and new media arts from and beyond Bulgaria. Media culture has always transmitted messages from inside outwards while with another stroke it processed the incoming flow of information. At the core of this trajectory there has been a cultural translator or decoder of sorts who can see through the veneer of the overlapping cultures. Traditionally, this 'go-between-cultures' role has been assigned to the institution of the art historian but increasingly the role has been handed over to a curator with a mixed background of an artist, manager, linguist, political activist and theoretician. This role has been packed with a new set of responsibilities including a critical and speculative attitude towards the future. How will the new curator steer the inside-out vector of future media culture of Bulgaria?

At the wake of the 21st century, the crash of anything curated or curatable is not difficult to imagine. While the end of civilisation (including anything curated) - as we know it - can happen any time (everybody knows the apocalyptic script), the beginning of a civilisation - as we have never known it - seems equally plausible. So why not rehearse the ultraprosperity scenario. Why not renegotiate the Roaring Zeroes theory advanced by economic and financial prophets of boom such as George Soros, Kevin Kelly, Paul Saffo and Walter Wriston and speculate that the doom is not at our curatorial doorstep in the 21st century.

But firstly, why the Roaring Zeroes? As the author of a recent publication under the same title Harry Dent Jr. claims that we will see very strong prosperity in the short term, similar to that of the Roaring Twenties. [1] Back then all types of new products - cars, radios, home appliances, phones - moved into the mainstream rapidly, just as the Internet and a lot of computer products do today. What the rich have in the year 2001, the rest of us will have in 2020: personal assistants and nutritionists, more leisure hours, polyemployment careers. [2]

What will the wealthiest individuals and governments do with their money? Well, pursue philanthropy, for one thing. As the Roaring Zeroes theory goes, the fastest-growing business in the next 20 years will be the administration of private foundations. [3] Soon a dozen new foundations bigger than Soros, Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie will surface. As prosperity takes off, the problems of giving away compound. Hospitals, schools and the opera will not be enough. Creative philanthropy will blossom. Giving big will be the next class-A status symbol. As Paul Saffo of the Institute of the Future says: "The BMW of the next decade will be the personal charitable foundation." [4] It does not sound difficult to give away money intelligently, but in reality it is. The millions of millionaires do not have that skill. Curators do, and so will the new breed of curators - the ultracurators.

Currently, I am just a regular independent curator, or as regular as any Bulgarian based in Liverpool can ever be. Trained in the cash-starved reality of late 20th century's non-commercial artworld, I - along with the curators of tomorrow - have had to be entrepreneurial, making meagre and diverse resources go a long, long, long way. (How long is that?)

I learned my trade in the personal charitable foundation of the financier George Soros, so I may have developed an affinity to the philosophy of ultracurating back in 1994 when I started out. With its network of 20 offices up and down Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet States, the Soros Foundation Network is probably the precursor of the nascent 21st century foundations of ultraprosperity. George Soros was led by the ethos of aiding the traumatic transition towards opening the totalitarian societies in the region. The grants issued by this dekamillionaire's fund alone exceeded at times the amount allocated by local and Western governments to the region. In its over 10 years of history the Soros Foundation Network has acted as a kind of shadow cultural ministry for many Eastern and Central European states co-producing nearly 90% of the cultural events there. Bulgaria was no exception to the Soros rule.

Soros himself has been highly respected and valued by the cultural intelligentsia of Eastern Europe (or disdained by those few who were rejected a grant) despite the fact that he has consistently declared that he has no personal appreciation for contemporary visual culture. Still, Soros was a formative figure in my early curatorial years. He helped forge the prototype ultracurator, perhaps accidentally, but nevertheless that has been one of the outcomes of his benefaction.

On a personal-confessional note, it was back in 1990 that I started my ongoing research on the complex praxis and identity of (digital) women artists. I could not focus on a Bulgarian character, either fictional or real, as women artists were not readily available for investigation, so I explored North American culture and tried to demystify and deconstruct the contemporary myth of the woman artist through Leila Sand - the protagonist of Erika Jong's novel Any Woman's Blues. [5] I have drawn the grim speculative conclusion that the 'obstacle race' towards enjoying the fruits of the woman artist's established status is yet to be won, as was powerfully acted and spelled out in the novel.

Now, ten years after Jong's verdict and Soros' formative intervention, and after the (mis)understood revolutions which have rocked Europe, I have joined the 'army' of half a million young people who have fled Bulgaria, taking across the borders their well-bred manners and inquisitive minds. I do enjoy the privileged position of being both 'here' and 'there' - dividing my time between Bulgaria and England. Nevertheless, I am more often resident in the nowhereland of cyberspace where most of my curatorial projects occur, get plotted, facilitated or developed. I think of myself as a producer and researcher born in the East End of Europe whilst mostly practising elsewhere. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for me to adopt this self-ironic position of denial - as a nowhere woman.

One of the striking differences affecting also the curatorial relationships between 'here' and 'there' is rooted in the infrastructure. In England, a curator tends to expect and find a supportive mechanism operating smoothly underneath so as to allow a project to be carried out from its inception all the way to its final display. The shortage of infrastructure resources and junctions in Bulgaria - and by and large in other Eastern European countries - means that most projects are managed on the line of 'reinventing the wheel' by well-rounded curators often disguised as miracle workers, matchmakers, plumbers, babysitters, B&B owners or interior designers. Communication Front 1999 in Plovdiv, dubbed the largest electronic arts forum ever staged in Bulgaria, was a classic tale of curating from both 'here' and 'there' and thus a feat of collective curatorial endurance. To fill in the infrastructural gap, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia has recently teamed up with the local Soros Centre for the Arts to set up the first educational framework for curatorial training. Away from the formal education system, it aimed at shaping up the first generation of art managers and the classically trained art historians and critics on the road to ultracurating. [6]

Just before blurring the geographic gulf between 'here' and 'there' and nowhere any further, I would like to focus on yet three Bulgaria-specific observations resonating with more global curatorial implications. The first is the gender issue, the second the new emerging class of the cultural gastARTbeiter [7] and the third the productive model of self-management.

Let's tour the art establishment of the late 1990s in Bulgaria. Dotted with strong and powerful female personalities highly responsible for their activities, it is set against a youth culture which, in contrast, breeds and promotes the new trendy look - the helpless, childish woman with short trimmed skirt and fringe who sends out the 'look after me' seductive message. The visual arts arena is ever more sensitive to women-driven initiatives and exhibitions featuring women. The last two years of the last century alone have seen a number of themed exhibits by or about loose and informal women artists' collectives. One of the most prominent collectives has recently legalised its status by adopting the ironic name 8th March and publishing a catalogue, which documents its members' group exhibitions over the years. [8] Most recently, seven of the 8th March members have crossed the pond and staged the impressive interdisciplinary exhibition Bulgaria, NY at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts gallery in New York City, working in pairs with seven American women artists during November 2000.

What is more, women with arts or humanities training have an increasing role to play in administering the public agora - this shared communal space of the arts - as a way of manifesting the new gender awareness and simultaneously respecting the other: be it gender, ethnos or age-defined. This phenomenon has extended to the point that the Bulgarian culture of the 1990s presents itself as run and governed by women artists and practitioners, all of whom are tough and quick-witted women in their early 20s to late 40s. Women dominate the curatorial network of artists and producers working from within the country. This is the case with Kultura, a well established cultural weekly newspaper with its editoress-in-chief and female staff structure, as well as with P.S., or Post Scriptum, a half-glossy literary 'magazine for women's creativity and gender integration' which was launched in September 1999 and has since been senior managed by women. From the National Fine Art Gallery Director and staff to the ICA Sofia Director and Co-director, from the ATA Centre for Contemporary Art owner and associated curators all the way to the Minister of Culture (despite her dubious role of devising a nation-wide policy with virtually no governmental funds to be allocated) - women are decision-makers setting the pace for cultural reform and artistic integrity. Even away from the capital city Sofia, there are some influential hubs, co-run by women artists and art critics, such as the Ancient Baths Centre for Contemporary Art in Plovdiv and the TED Gallery for Media Arts in Varna.

The Bulgarian case, however, is increasingly a commonplace practice on which one might draw the general conclusion that women are advancing within the art world, as artists, directors, gallery curators and art critics. To a large extent, this advanced status seems to depend on the fact that women have changed their professional attitude to fit the structure of the art world better, rather than the art world restructuring itself to allow women more presence and visibility.

How will ultraprosperity be absorbed by the home-grown women curators remains yet to be seen. One futuristic aspect to ponder upon is the question of how many women will be blind dating technology and what courting techniques they will employ. What is it that they are likely to find out about the creative potential of any technology-driven medium informing the moving image culture of today - from the cinema to the Internet? What will be at the other side of the ones and zeros for them, and how will they sustain their love-hate relationship with the digital art world? Creative technology as we know it today, ranging from video shorts through to computer-aided artwork, may not be the final frontier for an increasing number of women curators and artists, but they boldly go where no one else has thought to go before. Creative technology is reconfigured as an elegant occupation that readily includes, indeed welcomes, bouts of intimacy, shifting identities, lyricism, humour, pun and play, and the fires of urgency and immediacy. There is not just a love of experimenting, but a lust for blind dating technology. [9]

Indeed, in search of giddy romance or true (yet always blind) love, six women artists, at the forefront of the, have come together to tell their own blind data story at <>. [10] Told with a love potion of excitement and critique these are tales of sophistication, unrequited passion and seduction of new partners - the naughty computers. Each rendezvous with Mr. PC inspects the neo-technologisms used for authoring in an Internet environment. In Zornitsa Sofia's Cover Story the html-innocent cover girl goes out on her first blind date at the Marihuana café, Backstage night-club and ends up in bed with Mr. Personal Computer. Tragicomic comments and captions voiced over animated imagery expose the high-tech aspirations of the woman in love. Dimitrina Sevova partners with journalist Alain Kessi to premiere A Room of One's Own, which advocates for an independent creative space for digital women - for rooms of their own - with a Virginia Woolf's bravado while hijacking the interface of the <> - the Web's most intelligent forum for erotica. Artist and scientist Maria Berova investigates people's capacity for folly love by referring to the data demolition brought by the I Love You e-mail worm. Her no-win game of Love vs Hate is a barometer of people's anxieties and expectations when they chat to strangers over the Internet. Vania Valkova's Cyber_Refresh is another memory-tracing exercise and the artist's first real life date with html-programming. Serendipity and blindfolded desire are commonplace feelings at any first date, but when a third party distorts the signal of love - such as the delivery channel failing to transmit AnnaBo's new micro-audio works Sonic Incidents to the designer's studio - the sonic incidents mutate into audio accidents. Originally screened as a blindspot intervention at cinema theatres, Antoanetta's Homo Genesis is a cinematic haiku which now pulsates with the new rhythm of the ever more compressed digital imagery. The newly commissioned net works do not only embody the curatorial premise of blind dating technology but resonate with the romantic and aggressive aspects of today's media world while exposing the subtle and suggestive mechanisms of the women-computer relationships.

As the Roaring 2000s prophet Harry Dent Jr. suggests, prosperity is directly linked not only to women but also to the whole population. This could mean a very dark future for the planet beyond 50 years when every forecast predicts global population implosion. The flip side is that certain regions in the world will be in trouble. Long-term, Harry Dent Jr. believes that Europe is in real trouble demographically unless it attracts alternative workforce. [11] The shortage of labourers poses a key challenge in the ultraprosperity zone where there are a million ideas, a million dollars to fund each idea and no one to make it happen. Interestingly enough, immigration may help. Retirees who never retire may also help. Extreme prosperity means perpetual 'help wanted' signs. I would like briefly to focus on the call for laxity in the immigration legislation in Europe in the light of the cultural worker and ultimately the ultracurator. It was a fellow curator and possibly among the two best-known contemporary Bulgarian artists who prompted me to think in these opportunistic terms. Luchezar Boyadjiev revealed his findings that since 1989, when he started his extensive travelling to the so-called West because of what he is best at professionally (exhibitions, temporary media lab residencies, conferences), the pile of Western money spent on him has been growing to £100,000. [12] Yet, the irony is that he ended up with neither pocket money nor property put aside. Boyadjiev is not a loner in this new class of cultural gastARTbeiter, but his case rings some alarm bells, as the artist is treated as a cultural commodity in the symbolic market exchange. One sticking point raised in Boyadjiev's personal account: "Was it all money worthily spent when there is still obvious miscommunication and invisible borderline within the former East/West divide." Even Manifesta 3 grounded its curatorial talk in these same present-day political realities: "It was in fact the original idea to establish Manifesta as a tool to bridge the 'former Eastern Europe,' but since when cultural and political transformations have altered the nature of our compass? […] It is clear that the adjective 'former' implies not simply a geographical position, but a scale of values defined by former Western Europe to maintain supremacy." [13] Among all the simple questions that Manifesta 3 poses, we find some that Boyadjiev also asks: "Where to draw the borderline between former and current actualities?"

Another step aside to foresee some room for improvement in the orthodox art world can surprisingly strike a chord with the undergoing reforms in the managed medical care run by the National Health Services (NHS) in England. A rigorous rewriting of the new national health plan included a referendum campaign for creating a 21st century NHS on the basis that it receives the largest sustained increase in funding in its history. Ironically, self-care - as opposed to managed care comprising interventions and pills - will probably emerge as the new mantra. Self-medication seems to be playing a far greater role even in Bulgaria, now that the consumers have better information, which they often receive via the Internet. This shift occurs also because consumers are tired of being treated as second-rate citizens by the health-care system, and most importantly: consumers are scared. What they fear is not disease but ageing. The fear of living longer but with no functionality has the potential to be channelled into a new beginning for 21st century medicine. One reason is that the consumer is becoming proactive. Any anti-ageing programme for reversing rather than accelerating the process of ageing requires people to be pro-active on a lifetime basis. Hence, the new curatorial mantra for 21st century could be adopted by and for people ageing gracefully - or achieving longer life with a better quality. Supposedly, enough funds and do-not-have-to-work volunteers will be around to set the pace and prompt the art formats yet to be curated.

Likewise, self-management in the cultural profession could soon become the norm rather than the exception - artists as proactive agents and ultimately as their own curators. Christo & Jeanne Claude are easily recognisable contemporary icons of self-care, while Nedko Solakov is the glory and despair of his Bulgarian peers for self-engineering his career towards full recognition at trend-setting biennials and exhibitions. Artist-run initiatives are also highly contestant for the role of the external curator. The latest local incarnation are four independent artist-run agencies which have actively operated from within Bulgaria providing initial developmental resources and curatorial expertise in response to associated artists' needs - The Art Today Foundation, Plovdiv and the Sofia-based ATA Center for Contemporary Art, The Institute of Contemporary Art and InterSpace New Media Arts Center.

Most recently, InterSpace has co-produced a critically acclaimed public art project Urban Cycles, 2000 [14] by teaming up with IDEA (Innovation in Digital and Electronic Arts), Manchester - a similarly artists-led organisation and a loyal Communication Front collaborating partner. All curated for an identical floor projection, the ten interactive works by ten artists from Bulgaria and England animated and 'cracked' the heavily-contested code of the monstrous interior of the National Palace of Culture NDK - the largest multipurpose cultural venue in Sofia. Public participation became not only an option, but a condition for experiencing the individual artists' works, disrupting the identical interface day by day. To quote Matt Locke: "In this way the act of participation is never as final as it is with a photographic click of a camera shutter, but actually 'conditions' the object into a format that is more amenable to the user." [15] Indeed, the co-curatorial statement of Galina Dimitrova and Jen Southern is testimonial to Locke's views on interactivity: "As the audience tried to catch, to anticipate, to avoid these works they became creative participants, official intruders, unwanted guests, members of a faceless crowd, cumulative and creative numbers." [16] On hindsight, highly visible exhibition series such as Urban Cycles and Communication Front, organised on an annual basis by the artists-led Art Today Foundation in partnership with guest curators, may be credited for making media history. They have broadened the access to new technologies and moved media art practice from an exotic spectacle status to a diverse ubiquitous presence, from the awe-inspiring to the mundane. Undoubtedly, the point of formal techno-saturation and the advent of content-driven digital aesthetics is not far way out for the rapidly maturing media culture of Bulgaria. This is the same moment of cultural importance reiterated by the curators: "Urban Cycles revealed that the interaction between artist, audience and site had more to do with the content and context rather than the technical set up." [17]

Our old century-reinforced notion of what is curatable has seen a dramatic shift. From the primacy of the painting to the more inclusive view that art and culture is all around us, the ultracurators will be at the forefront of proclaiming what art is going to be like in an age marked by affluence and greater attention-span due to the increase in leisure hours. Of equal consequences are both the changes in the public acceptability of certain types of images (previously restricted to discreet social domains) and the infiltration of technological and new communicative systems into the practices of the art world. The result is that the illusion of a space of art separated from the social arena of everyday experience is difficult and unacceptable to maintain. Those former distinctions between art and life are less coherent due to the efforts of artists who foreground the conflicts and problems of common experience and due to the intensive aestheticising of social and political life through mutual interdependencies on communication networks. At the root of this network revolution lies communication. As Kevin Kelly writes: "Communication is the foundation of society, of our culture, of our humanity, of our individual identity, and of all economic systems. This is why networks are such a big deal. Communication is so close to culture and society itself that the effects of technologizing it are beyond the scale of a mere industrial-sector cycle." [18] Thus, we can probably build upon the unfinished avant-garde project of the 1960s and 70s, which is essentially a holistic success story, for since then we have started to merge art and life. [19] Our mindset may still be operating on a 20th century mode, but the ultracurator, dressed up as a bricoleur, should be looking for further ways of how art can infiltrate reality in and outside of Bulgaria.

This paper is a revised version of a talk delivered at the Curating in the 21st Century International Conference, held at The New Art Gallery, Walsall (England), June 2000. The talk is also published in Gavin Wade (ed.), Curating in the 21st Century, New Art Gallery Walsall (2001).


[1] Harry S. Dent Jr., The Roaring 2000s: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History, Simon & Schuster Books, New York (1998).

[2] Kevin Kelly, Happy Days - interview with Harry S. Dent Jr., in: Wired, Issue 7.09 (September 1999), p. 159 <>.

[3] Kevin Kelly, The Don't-Have-to-Work Force - interview with Walter Wriston, in: Wired, Issue 7.09 (September 1999), p. 158 <>.

[4] Kevin Kelly, The Roaring Zeros, in: Wired, Issue 7.09 (September 1999), p. 151 <>.

[5] Iliyana Nedkova, The Contemporary Myth of Women Artists, in: K. Deepwell (ed.), n.paradoxa, VI, London, <>; Erika Jong, Any Woman's Blues, Harper Collins, New York (1991).

[6] Iara Boubnova, First Summer School for Visual Arts Curators Proceedings, ICA, Sofia (2000).

[7] gastARTbeiter is an artist's coinage which derives from the German for season worker, "Gastarbeiter," literally "guest worker."

[8] Maria Vassileva, Where There is a Woman, There is No Silence, in: Obsession, 8th March Catalogue, Sofia (2000), p. 6 <>.

[9] Iliyana Nedkova 2000, Blind-dating Technology, in Marina Grzinic and Adele Eisenstein (eds.), The Body Caught in the Intestines of the Computer & Beyond. Women's Strategies and/or Strategies by Women in Media, Art and Theory, Maska Ljubljana/MKC Maribor (2000), p. 30.

[10] Blind Dating Technology, 2000, curated by Iliyana Nedkova, was premiered at Medi@terra 2000:NEO[TECHNO]LOGISMs - the Second International Art and Technology Festival and Symposium as part of Medi@terra 2000 Interactive Art Exhibition, at the Factory, Athens School of Fine Arts, Greece, November 2000 <>.

[11] Kevin Kelly, Happy Days - interview with Harry S. Dent Jr., op. cit.

[12] Luchezar Boyadjiev, GastARTbeiter 2000, in: Communication Front News, Art Today Foundation, Plovdiv (2000), p. 4. Reprinted in this volume <>.

[13] Francesco Bonami, The Former Land, in: Borderline Syndrome, Energies of Defence, Manifesta 3, European Biennial of Contemporary Art catalogue, Ljubljana (2000), p. 11 <>.

[14] Urban Cycles has been voted by the curatorial panel at the annual assessment enquiry by the Kultura weekly newspaper as the second best visual arts event of 2000.

[15] Matt Locke, Conditions of Use. Participation in Old and New Media, in: Third Text, 47, Summer 1999, p. 109 <>.

[16] Jen Southern and Galina Dimitrova, Digital Assets, in: A-N Magazine for Artists, December 2000 <>. Reprinted in: CFront - The Newspaper, Communication Front 2001 <>.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy - 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World (1999).

[19] Jean Baudrillard, as quoted by Jeroen Boomgaard, in: Inbox, Plan B Catalogue, Curatorial Training Programme 99/00, De Appel, Amsterdam (2000), p. 68.

Tazi statiq na bylgarski / This text in Bulgarian
Back to Contents in English