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

A view of the growing Bulgarian electronic art scene by an outsider looking in

Rupert Francis

People always see themselves differently from how they appear to others. Before attending the first Communication Front in Plovdiv in 1999, I didn't even know where Bulgaria was. Since then I've been back three times; for Video Archaeology in Sofia in October 1999, for Communication Front 2000 in June 2000, and for a holiday in Sozopol at the Black Sea in August 2000. During these visits I have met many artists, musicians, curators, techies and theorists. I would say that the electronic arts scene in Bulgaria is vibrant, interesting and well connected with the European and global electronic arts movement.

Prior to CFront in 1999, however, I think things may have been a little different. Sure, there had been forays into the international community with events such as the Virtual Revolutions meetings [1] organised by Bulgarian curator Iliyana Nedkova (who also co-curated Communication Front 1999) as well as the Crossing Over events [2] and the Syndicate website and mailing list. [3] However, none as comprehensive, or as bold, as to bring the major players of the global electronic art community to Bulgaria to see for themselves what was happening there.

What was for us just another conference, was the first ever such event in Bulgaria. In a climate where there are no university courses in things such as video or interactive art, where fine arts are still dominant, there was a month-long exhibition of electronic art installations, speakers from around the world, workshops, video screenings, ISDN link-ups and performances.

East met West, and for some of us, for the first time. This in itself was pretty amazing, as it had been 10 years since the opening of the iron curtain. Plovdiv was a revelation. The ageing buildings, the Cyrillic signs, the river, the heat, the blank billboards overlooked by the Marlboro man, the Russian cars, Roman amphitheatre beneath the main street, girls in big shoes, the beautiful old town, and the Turkish Baths where the conference was being held. For a month, from all over the world, artists, curators and new-media theorists gave talks, showed work, watched performances and discussed the issues of the day. Artists from IDEA [4] provided workshops in HTML to young people from Plovdiv, who worked on the conference Web page and interacted with the congregation. From the young people we learnt what it was like to live in Bulgaria, and we learnt some Bulgarian words. I was amazed at how good their English was, and how much they knew about Western movies, music, books and culture in general, contrasting with what we knew about Bulgaria, and Eastern Europe.

There is a genuine interest in the electronic arts in Central and Eastern Europe from the Western electronic arts community. This could be due to the universal interest in 'the Other,' but I think it is more due to a recognition of 'like.' We use the same tools, yet we come to them from totally different directions. Computers and the Internet are cheap and relatively available in the West, through universities, libraries, high standards of living and a hype machine driving political and economic agendas. In Bulgaria, software and hardware are expensive, the phone system is less-than reliable, cybercafés, although plentiful, are not generally affordable, and disposable income is spent on food and rent, as opposed to technology. Artists in the West come to computers in an environment where they are hyped up, everyone is talking about e-mail, Web sites, Napster, palm-pilots, games, it is a language which is understood by a majority of people and can be heard in the pubs, clubs and streets of any city. The pub next door to my office has its own Web site, and the pub quiz I recently went to in a small North Yorkshire country town had monitors above the men's urinals showing pictures and animations downloaded by the publican from the Web. Artists in the East come to the technology from a perspective of a relatively sudden influx of capitalism, advertising, MTV, preaching riches for all and a plastic welcoming grin, where we are all equal, or will be after a 'settling-in' period. While some people have become richer, many have become poorer. East Europeans do not travel freely to the West, economic forces have meant near economic collapse for Bulgaria in 1997, leading to the tying of the currency to the Deutschmark, unemployment is very high, rent is expensive, and the promised prosperity doesn't seem to be forthcoming. A computer is a luxury, an Internet café is expensive, a lot of people have e-mail access, but are not able to see the Web, due to costs as well as the phone system not being updated since the 1930s. These different cultural contexts from which the artists approach the technology is seen in the different types of electronic art produced.

Video art is strong in Bulgaria, with support from organisations such as the ATA gallery in Sofia, (when I was there they had an exhibition of Canadian video art), the TED gallery in Varna, exhibitions from some of the artists from Art Today in Plovdiv (e.g., Emil Miraztchiev) and events such as Video Archaeology 1 and 2 (October 1999 and 2000), but this technology has been around for a bit longer. However, it is still difficult for artists to gain access to video-editing suites or the more current hardware and software. Dimitrina Sevova, artist, curator, and organiser of Communication Front 2000 once told me that all her video work had been edited in media labs outside Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian scene is small enough for everyone to know of one another, and is well linked with artist groups such as Zadruga [5] and Apsolutno [6] in Serbia, and Ljudmila [7] in Slovenia, as well as links with Canada through the efforts of, amongst others, Hungarian Nina Czegledy's involvement with the Banff Centre [8] and the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts. [9] Through Iliyana Nedkova's work with FACT [10] there is a strong link with Liverpool and such events as Video Positive, [11] and also artists and organisations such as IDEA in nearby Manchester.

While the global electronic art community is relatively small, with most people being aware of the other artists, groups and organisations, it is difficult to go to every conference, exhibition, screening or event. I studied electronic art in outback Australia, and have been struggling to grow an electronic art community in Middlesbrough UK, and I think we face similar problems, such as access to equipment, venues to display work, and funding artist residencies and projects. Networking is vitally important, and a lot of the time one can feel isolated and unsupported. However, when a community is small, people are more willing to work together, it is easier to make a name for yourself in the area, creative support from fellow artists is much more forthcoming, artistic endeavours are more visible to the outside world of non-artists, and support can come from surprising quarters.

The issue for electronic art in Bulgaria is sustainability. Emerging artists need to be nurtured, support networks need to be in place, and access to technology needs to be readily available. Media labs need to be set up and courses and training available, and galleries funded to show work. However, some of the best electronic art I have seen has been from places and environments where technology is not readily available, made with out-of-date computers, walkmans, ageing video decks and photocopiers. I think you can have the best technology in the world but very little creative exploration. Many people in the West don't realise the privilege of having technology readily available.

I think that the two editions of Communication Front in Bulgaria have had a major impact on the electronic art scene in Bulgaria. Many of us in the West are keen to work more with Central and East European artists, to visit, to show, and to in turn reciprocate by inviting artists and show work in the West. I personally found the events very useful in getting a handle on all the things going on world-wide and to connect with other networks.

The future is bright for Bulgarian artists, and the next step is for us to work to stabilise, support and implement the infrastructure for a sustainable creative environment for young Bulgarian electronic artists. These things will take time, but the foundation has been put firmly in place. When Bulgaria enters the EU, there will be much more support available for such electronic arts projects and centres. This is three to four years away at the minimum, however, so the onus is on us to collaborate more and more with transnational East-West projects, and not to lose momentum and keep pushing for the equality that was first promised. We are all in it together.


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[5] For a project the Zadruga people did at CFront 2000, see <>; unfortunately, the group does not exist as such any more, but you'll find some of the projects continued on the Corrosion site <> - eds.

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