Communication Front 2001

Cyber and my sp@ce - Netizens and the new geography

From 1-14 June in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

<< CFront - The Newspaper - pp. 11-12 >>

Curating and Creating Across Networks

© Iliyana Nedkova, 2001 <>

With the old century out and the new in, we are experiencing an unprecedented rise in networked art practices as we have never known it before. The rise of network society and culture has cultivated and streamlined a great deal of artistic and curatorial responses of which Communication Front (CF), Crossing Over (CO) and Virtual Revolutions (VR) are just an exemplary fraction which has originated in Bulgaria but curated and created across networks achieved a strong impact way beyond Bulgaria.

The rise of the network society is an age-defining force, as the social scientist Manuel Castells argues eloquently in his recently revised book under the same title (1). Within his systematic analysis he formulates a scenario whereby art has got a very central role to play by capitalising on the opportunities and challenges which the network society brings along. Without being messianistic, Castells assumes that in progressive terms art can be the saviour of the network society, of the society which is increasingly about timelessness and spacelessness due to the acceleration of just about everything. The sociologist also investigates the downside of this new network society tracing the devastating effect on the society as have known it up until recently. If any society is about communities, that is where the network devastation is bound to erode its way. Dispersal of local energies and increased alienation is creeping between members of the communities who are adopting different growth rates. Therefore, the networked art practices can embrace the opportunity for intervening as a community-building kind of saviour.

All societies even the network society are caught in this mythical search of community. What is the defining logic of the newly rising network communities, what are the new communal values, constructing mass utopias for shared spaces and how will they differ from the exclusion or inclusion patterns in the old sense of community. In Castells' frame of mind today's art reflecting the network society can interject as an instrument of meaning and functionality. Rather than looking at places of public monumentality and grand projects let's focus on small-scale, mini-events such as the two curatorial examples of functional art or else artists-led community-building projects - VR and CO.

Both of these networked art projects were born in the aftermath of the bloody, velvet, singing, virtual and often misunderstood revolutions that have been delineating a new Europe since the late 1980s. Both VR and CO sprang from the same anxiety and inquiry typical for the post-cold war generation. Both projects intended to question the revolutionary dream of transition, the potential for transformation and the crossover into the new shared cultural space after the disintegration of the cold war world. They both marked a personal learning curve over the last 10 years of the last century. In the early 1990s I naively stumbled into the Bulgarian VR and ever since I wanted to check how the dream turned out. After the flurry of enthusiasm and national rupture faded away it felt like sudden sanity and there was a strong need to make sense of this sanity.

VR is about at least two types of sanities and revolutions - the digital or technological one on the one hand and the social, political and economic revolution on the other. VR is also about the degrees of virtuality in these two revolutions. Although equivocal and not difficult to be confused with Virtual Reality, VR insisted from the start on this other connotation of being virtual as in not quite, as if, semi-, half-hearted and just about to be transformed. Thus, VR set off to reflect on the commonalities, shared believes and not so much on the polarities between the formerly divided Europe. The east - west debate was further exasperated by the new post-cold war discourse which seemed to have reserved no room for such reflection. It has instead prioritised the hegemonic view of the alleged winners vs. the losers as Susan Buck-Morss have shown in her thorough investigation of the two former empires relationships (2).

Although clearly marked by the same apprehension VR and CO branched out to pursue their goals through two different structural models. CO is an ongoing project for producing and exhibiting new short digital films which celebrates its sixth year on the road in 2001. By 2001 VR could be written in the annals of digital art history as a classic story with a beginning and an end - a two-year project for developing and publishing new visual works and writings. CO still operates in the dreamworld of micro-revolutions involving up to ten artists at a time each year. Within the span of 1998 -2000 VR gradually assumed a massive dimension by involving about 80 VR people. It took two years of field and on-line meetings to build the VR community and ever since VR has been about dispersing of the VR artists and writers who have pursued their own ways. Community-wise, CO nurtures an ever-growing community and its yearly residencies serve as a communal drawing point.

Both CO and VR are informed by the Syndicate network for media culture, connecting people and institutions which are involved with or interested in media art in Eastern Europe. Both CO and VR have tapped into the Syndicate critical mass, sharing the ethos, and sometimes the infrastructure and membership of the network. Both CO and VR have used the Syndicate trademark - meetings in flesh, on-line or else the currently surfacing phenomenon of the temporary media labs which thrive within the framework of institutions or events - a true crossover between a very physical meeting spot and a wired (computer-networked) environment in the background. VR has teamed up with real-life events making creative (parasite) use of the abundance of opportunities and existing facilities (ISEA98, Liverpool and Manchester and Polar Circuit 98, Tornio and Rovaniemi). Or else VR has partnered to deliver the residencies and talks through the formal education sector (Salford University) or leading media organisations (FACT, Liverpool, IDEA, Manchester, V2_, Rotterdam and SCA, Sofia).

Initially VR was very precious about the aesthetic practice-in-progress and the process of authoring collaboratively. While mapping out the metaphorical terrain of VR, it insisted on the process of getting to know each other. This sense of comfort led to spontaneous collaborations or provided feedback for individual works or writings, which were in the making. Conversely, CO has had a pre-defined notion of the end product which have determined the curatorial rationale. CO has been deemed as very selective from the start with a set of rigid rules for joining in which additionally strengthening the commitment of each CO artist. VR has been more fluid and less rigorous in its open selection allowing for a drop in and out environment. CO has demonstrated strong curatorial authority and ownership (shared with Nina Czegledy). VR was good at sharing, at co-control with nodes of strong uni-lateral curatorial intervention and moderation while setting the public events - talks, publications and launches. CO and VR have also forged different nomadic philosophies. CO is very strategic about its yearly wherabouts while VR was very oppotunitistic and pragmatic as it was initially drafted as an EU-wide bid for financial support through the European Commission's Kaleidoscope scheme insisting on four major co-producers based in different EU countries. Finally, CO is about the world of spectacular aesthetics as it plugs into the glamorous film culture with good promotional prospects for rubbing shoulders with the new entertainment world of dubbed as the new yahoo for short films on the net. VR is about the world of unspectacular aesthetics as it primarily exists through the distributable media of CD-ROM-cum-books and ultimately the internet. With the annual web updates of the VR and CO spaces we can critically question the drive to encapsulate years of community-experience - experimenting, testing, producing and presenting networked art - in just a few webpages. How effective is the web zone as warfare to fight against the short-memory loss condition of such networked art practice? How do we deal with the most ephemeral of all archives - the electronically-coded memory?

It is not coincidental that the final VR publication and each of the annual CO collections of videoshorts feature a good cross section of the start-up or established (media) artists and writers working from within Bulgaria. Both VR and CO have provided vital mechanisms enabling Bulgarians and other New Europeans to tell their own digital stories, to question and examine the revolutionary dream of radical transformation.

Virtual Revolutions VR: Act and Read CD-ROM-cum-book has emerged as the outcome of the two years of creative workshopping and curating across on and off-line networks (3). VR: Act and Read thus tells the story of a dispersed community of people based across four continents. Coming from a wide range of cultural and artistic backgrounds, the VR people adopted the metaphor of virtual revolutions as a broadbrush, loose platform for concept construction and a common denominator for networking. It is hugely significant that one third of the curated VR Act zone works are authored by Bulgarian sound and visual artists aided by home-grown computer programmers. These are proactive works, which open up space for playtime, reflection and critique.

As part of the VR Act zone sound maker AnnaBo premieres White Room, which was originally a composition written to induce a private niche for sound therapy on the web but eventually migrated to the façade of the VR as part of the VR score permeating the entire audio environment. Similarly, the award-winning contemporary composer Georgi Arnaoudov re-examines an earlier minimalist work, which visualises the sounds of silence (aka SOS) in his elegant web debut SOS. In search of new revolutionary modes of self-representation across the web pipelines Petko Dourmana deliberately slows down the notoriously sluggish world of limited bandwidth to reveal fragments of his digital self-portrait in Nobody (Faceloading). Graphic artist Margarita Goranova blends in fine Chinese penmanship and Flash digital aesthetics to scratch beneath the surface of ancient and digital signs in her Heart Art Work - the hieroglyphic sign for "must" and allegedly for "revolution" reveals the hideousness of each historical trauma - a pierced human heart. In collaboration with digital guru Mare Tralla (Est/UK) writer and poet George Gospodinov reads a series of visual poems about the small revolution in broadcasting - amidst a world jammed with noise and information, his VRadio picks up the station of silence. This is silence that can radiate with an invisible voice and vocal virtuality. Artist Dimitrina Sevova's VRCookbook could be enjoyed with a pinch of salt as a recipe for postmodern living. Pick up and mix the series of photographs with the score of train rail tracks while passing through the while tunnel of a dinner plate.

One can even get a taster for the powerful satire of the lucrative art world through a glimpse in the final chapter of artist Nedko Solakov's mini-Canterbury Tales comprising The Right One - a stand alone CD-ROM-based interactive artwork and a booklet of essays, which have also emerged from the VR series of networking residencies (4). Another VR Act zone is built as a short documentary to celebrate a work initially exhibited as a large-scale gallery installation during VR. Revolution for All by artist and theoretician Luchezar Boyadjiev is a face and identity swapping game parodying the western nostalgia for revolutionary utopia. Revolutions have always been about people's festivities, mass spectacles and celebrations. "Where is that we want to change? Where can we draw the fine line for those in the West deprived of the first-hand experience of the Eastern European revolutions?, asks Boyadjiev.

By encouraging genuine and meaningful collaboration between the VR people, VR managed to stay away from the former power blocks mentality and focussed on the refined problematic of each individual and the community and locality they felt attached to. Not unlike Communication Front (CF), VR is thus another step in getting beyond the former east - west divide of Europe, in reassessing the European identity as less split, less insolent and less closed to the rest of the world. As the diverse works by the Bulgarian artists have made it evident, VR has developed a media strategy that counters the ideology-driven, grand narrative of revolution and terror and puts forth a number of `minor narration's that irritate, subvert, amuse and tickle the minds.' (5) If we look at it as a fine example of a community-based practice and therefore not as sharp-edged and sublime as Andreas Broeckmann affirms, we can apply the weapons technology perspective. VR will be the short story of paper machine guns set against the ferociously blown-up TV scene with the big guys, flying and crashing their Apache helicopters. VR was all about risk, pressure-free, open-ended and process-led creativity. Predominantly, horizontal, dispersed and inclusive, VR networked activity was socialising and polyphonic - an activity `that could imagine what it wanted to imagine rather than have its fantasies made-up for it like a be-spoke suit. It could imagine revolution if it wanted to' (6). And so it did.

CO was also a dream-catcher from the start as the catalogue celebrating five years of CO networked activities points out (7). In 1996, when CO began - much needed then, and still in demand today - was an alternative, free-access framework for developing, producing, and presenting experimental video works. CO even borrowed its name from the dream of transformation, disguising it in the cross-cultural metaphor of the journey recurrent in each work emerging from the annual CO master classes. CO videos talk about passing through the realities and utopias of cultures, technologies, art disciplines, geographies, and economies. While pursuing the dream, the works shift our perceptions, which are heavily encoded by language and ideology or by cultural tourism and consumption of places. It may be a dream, but perhaps one day when CO becomes history, there will be no need to restrict identities to the overpoliticised notions of east or west, north or south.

In its modest scale, each CO plugs into local cultural ecologies. Its continual impact on the Bulgarian art community has been highlighted by cultural theorist Chris Hill, "As a vehicle for artists' work CO contributes to the larger project of provoking, marking, and articulating a floating frontier. What it means to address or reference the now shifting frontier that for decades sustained enormous differences between Eastern and Western Europe will continue to change quickly. There is always cultural capital to be gained for those who observe cultural changes from a distance of decades, but the importance of creating opportunities for cultural exchange through active production, as CO has done, is perhaps not remarked upon often enough" (8).

Each CO temporary media lab has led to the production of a new series of about ten videoshorts every year. By 2000 more than twelve Bulgarian artists have managed to contribute to the collective video epic of CO. By mastering the fine art of condensing often complex concepts into just three tightly packed minutes each of the twelve videoshorts have earned a deserved acclaim for their Bulgarian artists-directors. The first three series feature eight video projects by artists most of whom subsequently have been recognised as the leading new media artists working across networks from within Bulgaria. Joining their CO counterparts Elena Belova, Krassimir Terziev, Odiliya Yankova, Tsvetelina Gancheva, Ivan Mudov, Dimitrina Sevova and Kalin Serapionov have explored the individual's relationship to the body as a landscape and the personal charting of terra nova (new territory). Counteracting the millennium frenzy, the fourth series featured another three Bulgarian video works by Boriyana Dragoeva, Dimitrina Sevova and Zornitsa Sophia telling the subtle and varied stories of time. The latest fifth series revisited the myths and absurdities of the former evil empires of east and west and involved a project by Boriyana Dragoeva. Eschewing the arcane polarities and the uncanny similarities of historical ideologies, each work in each CO compilation, including the strong Bulgarian works, generates a dense micro-narrative and illuminates the changing nature of the dream for a shared cultural space.

Sevova's Merry-go-round is a short roller-coaster ride into a dreamland where surreal visions and sounds mix with a nightclub-style ambience. Shots of a playground, puppies, babies, and lovemaking are set against a soundscape of pulsing heartbeats, jolly laughter, and heavy breathing. Throughout his In Search Of... Terziev explores issues of memory loss. It is based on a mathematical paradigm of dark and light sequences. The investigation of a dark storage space is increasingly interrupted with shots of street life, including images of political demonstrations in Sofia. Moudov's theatrically staged video short Simon Says...reflects on the shallow display and bigotry of established religions, as well as on the spread of child-abusing religious cults through bold use of strong imagery. Less poignant is Belova's first video work, Impressions of a Mirror which seems to ask, "You out there, looking through the mirror, are you seeing your own real image?" Shot through various glass objects, portraits of TV celebrities intermix with those of family and friends, creating an eerie pool of images. Yankova's brief video (less than a minute) I, RNG (random numbers generation) deals with the conflict between the impulse for control over the representation of one's identity and the limits of one's actual power. In contrast, the slow-motion aesthetics of Gancheva's confessional work Virgin centers around visual fragments of a nude female body on an imaginary stage. The intriguing first-person narrative resonates with the nerve of being a virgin in a world short of love and attention. My Name Is Samsonite by Serapionov glorifies a minimalist image of railway tracks, shot from a moving train. The repeated sequences create an abstract yet mesmerising pattern. The pun of the title comes from the artist's statement, "Often I feel like a piece of Samsonite stuck in the luggage compartment of the train, bouncing back and forth." Dragoeva's Celebrating the Next Twinkling features two screaming girls. Reshot off a monitor and manipulated by playing with the controls, the images slowly become independent of the soundtrack. The feeling of real time is gradually lost, and the next twinkling is celebrated as the real progress in time. Zornitsa Sophia's Crossing Over Time is an irrational story or an experiment. The video short overturns our contemporary notion of time, evoking the old carnivals when people "change" their clothes, sex, or behaviour, and everything becomes possible. Mixing the bloodthirsty and the humorous, Dragoeva's Beauty and the Beast 2 is a tragicomic tale of a woman and her lover is set in a labyrinthine domestic environment. Finally, Sevova's Three Short Videoportraits is about three generations of women living together in one family flat. The end of the 20 century has a very different significance for each woman, from a physical, social, and spiritual perspective.

Each of the short CO works as well as VR and CF open a window onto still shifting sensibilities - all legacy of the turbulent 20 century. If we are to paraphrase Chris Hill, one can claim that the five CO programs, the VR residencies and the CF networked activities considered as a whole, legibly mark cultural time (9). The viewer is invited to travel with the work from east to west, although the journey is hardly direct and the time warps frequently. Each CF festival event as much as each CO and VR digital short create an opportunity to pause on that journey and to check out the cultural landscape at that place and time. Experienced as an entire body of work, the three network art projects offer a foundation for wider cultural translation of this historic trek.

(1) Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishers, New York, 2000.

(2) Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe. The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass), 2000.

(3) Iliyana Nedkova et al. (eds), Virtual Revolutions: Act and Read, CD-ROM-cum-book, AVRE, Liverpool Art School and FACT, Liverpool, 2000.

(4) Nedko Solakov, The Right One, CD-ROM and book, AVRE, Liverpool Art School and FACT, Liverpool, 2000.

(5) Andreas Broeckmann, Changing Faces, In: Media Revolution, Stephen Kovats (ed.), Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/NewYork, 1999.

(6) Howard Slater, Post-media Operators, In: READ-ME! Nettime (eds.), Autonomedia, New York, 1999.

(7) Iliyana Nedkova and Nina Czegledy, Crossing Over Dreams. In: Crossing Over, Iliyana Nedkova et al. (eds), FACT, Liverpool and Wexner Centre for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus (Oh), 2001.

(8) Chris Hill, Marking Time at Shifting Cultural Borders. In: Crossing Over, Iliyana Nedkova et al. (eds), FACT, Liverpool and Wexner Centre for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus (Oh), 2001.

(9) Chris Hill, ibid.


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