Sofia Art Week 2020: If you were to do something for the very last time, what would you do?

When I first met curator and artist Voin de Voin at Æther, a gallery situated in a leafy street in Sofia’s city centre, at the end of the last year, the world was a far cry from the reality we’re living in at the moment. Fast forward nine months, and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and ongoing anti-government protests around much of Eastern Europe, etc. A need for a radical and critical reflection and approach to art and its engagement with society at large has become the perfect point of departure for Sofia Art Week. A week-long series of art interventions at several public locations (including the Ministry of Finance and the National Bank) poses several questions: What is the new voice of protest? Where are the radical voices, and where is our political memory? What does it mean to implicate oneself? Is sacrifice still a thing” or a living condition? The answer is a polyphony of voices within a loose artistic framework based on an open call that is closer to the culture of the street than to cultural representation”. I reconnected with Voin and fellow SAW curator Lisette Smits online a few days ahead of the Art Week and reached them at a bar where Voin is working (while organising the large-scale international event on zero budget). 

The protests against corruption and the government have been going on in Bulgaria for more than two months now. How have you incorporated the protest movement into this year’s theme of the Sofia Art Week?

Voin de Voin: In a way, we’re synchronising with the protest movement in solidarity with the protesters. Because there’s something that’s lacking a little bit, namely where are the artists in the protest? Our initiative started way before the current events though. 

Lissette Smits: Apart from the question as to where the artists feature in the protest or what the artistic voice is – can there be a political voice in art – we also felt that we wanted to do something immediate. Maybe it’s a very old-fashioned approach to do it without any preparation or funding. 

VdV: I don’t know if it’s old-fashioned, but at least it has the drive of being our way of protesting. 

LS: The moment you get funding for a project that comes from political awareness or a wish to become politically active, what does it really mean to be funded by a national body or the government? The urgency gets lost perhaps. The framing and representation also plays a role, of course. That’s why we did it this way with our radical open call.

VdV: The urgency is different. Artworks don’t have long shelf lives these days. By the time you write the proposal and get the money, your topic is totally outdated, and maybe half of Europe has done projects about the same topic.

LS: Your work becomes part of the administration. It’s depoliticising per se. 

VdV: And occupies so much of your time. 80 or 90 percent of projects become part of this administrative system. You really lose the core of your drive for how to go on and to encounter the real. The system frames you when you become part of it. 

You also work with the centre-periphery dichotomy. This precariousness is sort of embedded in the modus operandi of independent arts and culture in Eastern Europe. It’s a different way of operating. You have managed to organise a week-long event with more than 70 artists. 

VdV: That’s why the mixture between both of us is interesting. At times, there’s great friction, because we come from totally different backgrounds: what is art, the artist as a social worker or the artist as an independent free radical? We’re both finding each other in the middle of this somewhere. 

LS: Bulgaria is already the periphery. The parameters are completely different here. The reach out to the periphery from the point of view of the “West” is not addressing the fact that, with contemporary art, we mean Western art that’s embedded in a totally Western discourse and type of aesthetics. That’s also what we’re questioning with this project. There was no pre-selection in terms of taste in our open call. 

VdV: The radical part of it is how to avoid putting a price on the artwork and its value and aesthetic properties. It’s more about looking for gestures and a hidden language that isn’t obvious. We’re challenging artists from different fields to really enter and cross-section different practices of the moment and to really encounter this most physical and political status of the body that we really want to go back to and the presence as the driving power entity behind the idea of what is political. 

LS: I don’t really know what will come out of this. In that sense, it’s completely uncontrolled. The idea was that it can be anything. It can be an artwork, but it can be also something else. This is very much how Voin has been working with Aether in Sofia for a very long time. With barely any budget (or zero budget), bringing together and challenging the notions of art from different perspectives: from a Western perspective and a non-Western perspective, from a privileged perspective and a marginal perspective. 

VdV: It’s really fascinating that it didn’t just resonate locally. For me, this is also a new way to work. Because I have a network, and I always select. But this time we opened up and we wanted to give a voice to people who aren’t experienced, who are young and who are still developing their language. This is also part of what’s happening now, this generational change that’s going on here. There’s this big clash. The people who have been holding onto the system vs. these new people who claim that they have the skills and who are bidding farewell to the old world. This is exactly what’s happening here as well.

If we stopped that stream of energy, we would also become what the dictators do somehow. So that’s why it’s also good to kind of spit it out. It’s also at a time when there are so many restrictions to really being completely generous and open to everything that’s emerging.

LS: If we’re against the establishment, against the privilege, against the people who are the one percent, let’s say, then we also have to be against the establishment of art. 

The art world has become this world of its own where curators mingle with artists and it’s very impenetrable. And then at some point, it’s also about this infrastructure that you have to be part of. Openness is radical in that sense. 

LS: I think this is very much about the ethics of working. And this is something that I find very, very frustrating. What is being preached isn’t what people do. If you’re interested in marginal positions, then you really have to engage with them. And this is something that’s happening mostly only at representational levels. 

VdV: I think with SAW we’re creating the context for this to expand and emerge, because we’re both not interested in representation at the moment. We’re interested in meeting real voices. What would be the resonance between them? The artistic moment is some kind of a vague zone. It’s not yet fully embodied. The artistic “happens” when a real context and time collide and coincide. That’s what I think is very challenging for us. It’s really about how you inject or insert it and how you work with placement and about your own self-awareness of time and space. 

LS: As a project or as a statement, I think it’s a kind of a provocation. It’s also a project that’s happening here in Sofia, in the context of this city with all the artists and people working here and the protests happening and everything else. So it’s really embedded in this context.

VdV: I think that Europe is living under a layer of overload. Its political language has been mutated, whether we’re talking about corruption or neoliberal treatment, and all things are interwoven in this system that’s interconnected and is eating away at itself. What intrigues me are the actions and revolt in different parts of Europe. The shout-out for ways of being together, uniting all the clichés around that idea of wanting to be free. 

LS: The big Western institutions whose voice is mostly white male, our colonial position, built on colonial heritage, are finally being questioned thoroughly. Where is the other voice? And of course, Bulgaria is Europe. 

VdV: It’s interesting to observe these processes because they’ve been really suppressed. You’re the periphery, you don’t have money, you’re late on the agenda. Look at this, how far we’ve gone. But these processes are slightly inverse at the moment. There’s a measure of psychogeography here. 

What do you mean? 

VdV: This process that has now really slowed down in the West is really speeded up here. Bulgaria has been in this dead zone, this vacuum, regressing for the last 20 years. Now, just because of Covid and this anarchic way of being together, this society can allow you to do stuff like this Sofia Art Week. It’s something of an open space that permits non-institutional actions. Meanwhile, the West is still chewing on its guilt trip, the colonial heritage. And that’s taken all the space, and they cannot progress. They’re also stuck. And like yesterday, for example, a Dutch curator friend of mine called me and asked me how the preparations were going. She said that she greatly admired the fact that we’re doing this because the Venice Biennale has now been postponed to 2022. The radical thing for me is that here we just do it, because this is what we have to do right now, and this is clear and it’s basic and it’s raw. And this is the energy. 

VdV: This is to assume your position as a cultural agent, as an artist or whatever you are, and then you can create new agencies around this new situation. But stop chewing around the new situation and being submissive to that. I’m a little bit fed up with the construct of the neofascist control method of all aspects of life. 

I was actually going to ask about the Art Week’s methods of presentation because you have various locations across the city, including government locations, like the Ministry of Finance and the National Bank. Could you talk about the choice of locations and whether these public space interventions could, in a way, become part of the ongoing protests that are happening in Sofia? 

LS: These are very small performances done by a single artist in front of a building. It becomes very symbolic. It’s very much informed by the reality here.

Do you think there’s a possibility that they might get dispersed, especially the interventions in front of government buildings? Is that taken into consideration as well? 

LS: There’s a very violent system of control here, but at the same time it’s also very much disorganised, and there’s a lot of chaos. It’s perhaps a different type of control like the one we have in the West. 

VdV: It’s chaos, but many people don’t do things here unless they really have the money. Nobody has the energy. We’re exhausted. People are still wondering why we do it. People wouldn’t do anything without a budget. It’s a little bit like in the West, I have to say. 

Can you talk about this year’s Art Week’s theme Swan Song”? 

LS: You do something for the last time and you give your best performance. Maybe that’s the type of spirit we wanted to provoke. If you were to do something for the very last time, what would you do? So many things are happening in the world right now. It’s melodramatic and perhaps total kitsch to call it “Swan Song”, but it’s also a great metaphor for something that’s beautiful.

VdV: It has to die or change. For me, it’s totally serious and it corresponds with the transformation of an exhausted political and economic system, not only in Bulgaria. This holding onto power and not wanting to let go. So it’s really about inverting the spectacle. The audience watching this degrading political charade. People get more and more serious about who they are, about their identity and how they feel they’re more awake, more aware. 

The events in Bulgaria in the last few months are also interesting from the standpoint of theatricality, a political charade, like you said. There’s the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at the centre of the corruption scandal, who’s a karate champion and the former bodyguard of Communist leader Todor Zhivkov, who accused the President of spying on him with a drone after photos were leaked of what appeared to be him sleeping in his bedroom with a gun on the table and a drawer full of cash. It’s all, in a way, a public spectacle occurring on the sidelines.

VdV: Totally. This is the scenography.

LS: And that’s already over the top. New details are coming out every day. It’s completely scandalous. It’s drama and it’s reality. 

It must be interesting to organise an art event against the backdrop of this sort of crazy, outrageous political spectacle. How are you reflecting on that in terms of art given that it’s already dramatic? 

VdV: How can we beat that? It’s gone so far beyond what’s acceptable and imaginable. In that sense, it has surpassed art. So we’re basically deducting here. We’re taking a sort of regressive step in order to arrive at this so-called new normality, because things have gone so outrageously over the top so it’s like, OK, where do we go from here? 

With the open call submissions that you received, was it really heterogeneous or was there a recurring theme or something that people were trying to address? 

VdV: For example, one of the shows will happen in an internet club from the 1990s, creating a temporary matrix situation in which we play with memory and connect it to the new technological surveillance, a shift to the digital present. The transition from the 1990s until now was supposed to be the transition period from democracy to the new digital era. It really is a shift from what I would call the measurements of the surplus value of what the body produces, a kind of currency, to a new kind of currency created in the digital realm, which is about electricity, and which is about internet currencies. 

Another perspective is focused on local artists and activists who have been involved in the protests. We decided to call it: “Tomorrow Belongs to Whom?” This comes from the Nazi empowerment song “Tomorrow belongs to me”. But we’re going to sing “Tomorrow Belongs To Whom”. Tomorrow is really coming, and it’s either ours or it’s going to be about history repeating itself. 

LS: One of the threads in the proposals is very individual, and vulnerable voices are speaking out about the impossibility of surviving in a system that’s oppressive, whether it’s about the economy, mental health, gender or sexuality, heteronormativity, migration or consumption. We have a group from Kyiv that’s going to do a performance at the Bitaka flea market in Sofia. The project is about the energy of the market, one that’s less focused on making a deal, but is more of an everyday ritual, a way of being.

LS: We also have a live stream by an artist from Chile, based in Spain at the moment. She’s a sound artist who has a Native American background and is making a piece of work drawing from that culture. There’s a very specific connection to the Earth and to different cosmologies.

Do you think that we’re experiencing some sort of paradigm change? 

VdV: It’s like some kind of an exercise to prepare for it because a paradigm shift is critical. It’s an empowering way to meet artists and to speak about how we can hold on to that and be very prepared. We need to be really strong to get through this coming period. Otherwise, you might as well just die tomorrow. 

LS: The Western art world, Western culture, has to be much more inclusive. It has to acknowledge all these different voices that are much more complex than just this one culture. 

On one hand, it feels like nothing can be done to stop the direction of humanity – neither in an environmental or logical sense nor in a political or military sense. No protest makes sense. But then again, you see local developments and movements. In the Netherlands, things are changing because we have a very strong Black Lives Matter movement due to our colonial past. During the last year or so, something has been changing. And that’s just the beginning. I’m excited about that.

Sofia Art Week is taking place in Sofia from 19 to 26 September 2020.