Do You See Sofia?

Discussion Do You See Sofia? 2003 Discussion Do You See Sofia? 2003 ICA-Sofia

Public Discussion 3rd of July 2003, Sofia Art Gallery

Moderated by Alexander Kiossev.

 

Should we investigate this city from a negattive viewpoint only, should we only uphold the cliche of badwording Sofia? Maybe we should not only “criticise” and “fight” for some sort of our own ideal or nostalgic, clean and super clean Sofia. Maybe we should also educate our eyes to see the visible and invisible charms of this city and its delightfull and colorful development, for the beauty of its chaos.

Alexander Kiossev (culturologist): The visual environment of the city is ever more the decisive environment of life. It influences the people of the city; it influences all of us and especially strongly our children. Is it possible for us in this ever more interactive world to remain passive about this influence and if we do want to be active how is that possible? What can we do with a city in a state of transformation that is bombarding us with a variety of messages? Do these have a common denominator? How can we orient ourselves among these? Do we posses the visual literacy to read the messages?

Another counter-question comes to mind right away: who has the right to interfere, how and where are the limits of the interference? We are talking about the “ecology of the visual environment” but this metaphor is easy to border on the undemocratic censorship, the righteousness, the grumbling, and murmuring about how ugly this city is and so on. How can we differentiate one from the other?

Last but not least, for the first public debate of the Visual Seminar project we have gathered here together two categories of people. Jokingly I call the first category “wordless” people and the second - “imageless”. There are philosophers here, literary people, historians, journalists and a variety of people mainly from the University who can very well talk. However, they know little about the codes of the new visual culture. There are also artists and experts on the visual environment who know an awful lot about such things. However, they are not all that verbal. How can we connect, how can we short-circuit the verbal and the visual codes, that’s one of the problems we are very much interested to address.

Luchezar Boyadjiev (artist): What I am about to show you is a visual diary of walks and thoughts about and around Sofia. There are some things I have observed, some that I have reinforced. I am convinced that the lowest visual denominator of Sofia is to be found in the neighbourhoods rather then in the large, open city spaces. On the other side, I am sure that there is a big difference between just looking at the city, somehow passively registering it in front of your eyes, and seeing the city. The logic of what I am showing you is based on finding and seeing of visual irregularities in the city. And the lowest visual denominator of Sofia is that everybody can hang anything visual and communicative, anywhere around the city.

Here for example, in this provisionally speaking, “neighbourhood” of housing project “Mladost 1 A”, at a place where now the shiny corporate office of Mobicom is, there was a supermarket years ago. In this “fusion” between the two types of realities, the corporate and the neighbourhood ones, I see the common visual denominator of Sofia. The “fusion” happens on many levels, in many ways, with many characteristics, all over.

In the neighbourhoods the aggressive “fusion” of the corporations happens in a very drastic way. The corporate office immediately becomes the center of life for a given neighbourhood. The facades of these offices are always very shiny, glowing and with reflective surface. This comes to tell us that until, let’s say, a MacDonald’s outlet springs up in a given neighbourhood, the neighbourhood has been lacking a focal point, a center of its own. The question however is whether such a center offered by MacDonald’s is really a kind of a community center for the people or not? It is a center visually, by all means.

Here I have some visual suggestions about what to do with the city environment. I think that definitely a lot of attention should be paid to what’s happening in the neighbourhoods and that something from the neighbourhoods should infiltrate the large city spaces in the center, rather then the other way around. For instance, provided nobody did anything to reconstruct and preserve this monument in front of the National Palace of Culture, couldn’t we just transform it into some sort of a housing option? Another option is to make the new housing projects in Sofia rather more beautiful. Here for example, I have a suggestion for a new housing project named “Beatles 1 A” whereas the apartment blocks there are arranged like the letters and the lyrics of the famous Beatles song “All You need is Love”. I think that in this way the neighbourhood will be more meaningful to live in… It’s just a question of construction and planning, of advertisement. There will be people who would want to buy apartments there and so on.

Lilo Popov (architect): The main question in this discussion for me is the question about the visual identity of Sofia. In the last 10-15 years many new types of buildings came around - starting with the first small tin hut-shops (all of them with window gratings, a sort of a grated sub-architecture) all the way to the shiny granite bank offices. Alongside these temples of the capital, many real temples were constructed, a lot of churches mainly in Sofia. The very city environment intensified. Where there were one coffee place and three shops before there could be now fifteen coffee places and twenty shops. At the same time however, I am not entirely sure that the city environment is becoming more democratic. If the democratic ideal is the ideal of our time that should be reflected in the city environment then it follows that the street level of the city buildings, the level most accessible to people both visually and bodily, should be more open and accessible. However, we can see that in the center of Sofia for example, the level of accessibility has gone down. Where once there were centers of culture, or bookstores and coffee places, now there are banks, luxury clubs, etc. All of a sudden the street level of the buildings became les democratic, more closed off and inaccessible.

The urgent question and the paradox is that one of the aspects that award Sofia its distinct identity, the city’s historic past and heritage that make it a European city through the architecture from the early 20th century, is subjected to criminal destruction. The paradox here is that the new interests are entering this part of the city environment precisely because of its main qualities that the historical heritage and the cultural layering are awarding to it. That’s why capital, the business is interested in this environment but at the same time it is cutting off the basis by jumping in and destroying that which, to use the crude terminology of the market economy, is increasing the value of the real estate property.

The last item I want to address is should there be and could there be a specific distinct architecture of Sofia? Maybe this would be possible if there was a specific Sofia life style? Architect Christo Genchev for instance, maintains that it should be the sports. He has in mind the proximity of mount Vitosha and specifically the southern way of living and communicating with each other Sofia people have. There are probably other parameters of the life style but in my mind the main question architects are concerned about is - what should be like the contemporary architecture of Sofia? Should it be decisively unique thus contributing to the visual identity of Sofia?

Dimitar Stoichev (manager): In my view the state of Bulgaria is a place, which needs badly to have things, being made, including all that you are showing visually, it also needs to be made and if there is a need to talk then the talking should take place at the location appropriate for that. Actually, the discussions we are having now I would prefer to have in the Municipality of Sofia. Have you ever heard of a debate about the urban space of Sofia? Have you ever heard of Sofia newspapers discussing any of that, of publishing plans, competition entries, architectural ideas, and concepts, of debating all of that with the people of Sofia? No, you have not, right? When we are doing business we are surveying our consumers. In the same way, if you want us to do something about the city environment it should simply have a better target, in my view. It should be targeted to those who are destroying the city environment, to those helping them and to those who are just irresponsible about it or to those who are quite beneficial to it. Advertisement in the city space is something that you can see in all world capitals, some places it's more, others - it's less. I find that endlessly beautiful. Yes, there are cases when advertisement is ridiculous, there are cases when it is not well made but these are purely creative decisions for the moment. These are executive decisions so I see no ground for polemics in advertisement and the city environment. The problem is not to impose culture on the business, the culture of urban behaviour because business has that already.

We are working in an entirely new environment where everybody wants to and should compete for existence, and that's part of his/her competition. The institution is the one that will channel all of that but the institution is fundamentally broken down at the moment. It is not communicative, it does not talk, it does not discuss, it does not create urban space and it does not create urban community with whom to debate about all of that. So, I do not see the business and advertisement as agents/adversaries in your debate. You may ask whatever you want from the business, you can regulate it and it will follow in a minute. That's not a problem. We have to turn our attention to our own environment and our own way of social life within this urban community in order to get what this is all about. The business is not all that amoral. It only looks that way at a glance.

Kiril Prashkov (artist): I am left with some doubts about the last statement of Mr. Stoichev concerning the inactive institution, which is actually not channelling the business, advertisement in this case, according to our wishes. As far as I understand this means that if the institution keeps on being inactive, which is quite possible, the kind of development we have at the moment will go on indefinitely. In a way this concerns me a lot because when I am walking around the city I have the feeling that the advertisement is more then the city. The city simply disappears at a certain moment and it turns out to be inadequate to the overpowering advertisements.

There is one thing in the way advertisement of Bulgarian products is made that frightens me a lot and that's when you meet the producer to hear the term (I call it a term) that “I want something more..., well, you know...”. It is the investigation of this term that I think is a rather important aspect.

There is also one other aspect for the artist when working for advertisement. It's the fact that naturally all is being made on the machine called computer. The computer however, has the ability to convince the one punching the keys that he/she can do a hell of a lot of things, to make a decision on his own thus pushing aside along the way many other people and opinions, to finally take matters into his hands in a rather trivial computerish kind of way. What strikes me especially where advertisement of Bulgarian goods is concerned is the truly amazing aggressiveness and figurativeness. The figurativeness has been turned into such a high level of aggression that puts me in a dead end situation wondering whether there should be a categorical refusal of such figurativeness in order to reduce at least a bit also the aggressiveness I am talking about. The bad thing about it is that the risks in advertisement, provided I think that the risk is probably the best thing about it, is that these risks involve mainly the good taste. I do not know who is to define the good taste but in any way the risks are always happening in the same area.

Iara Boubnova (curator): As an ordinary viewer I think that Sofia is no longer a city for the people living here now, especially where advertisement is concerned. The advertisement, especially in the city, offers a certain wished for image of ideal existence. That's the logic according to which the advertisments are communicating with us every day. Advertisement does not really believe we are in a position to use all these things for their quality alone. It somehow appeals to us in a similar way to the so-called contemporary architecture, which I think is developing rather like the logic of construction of proto-architecture. They both offer to us some kind of feeric, astounding and blissful existence rather then to just live with some nice objects and convenient things while being normal consumers among other normal consumers. Isn't this something like the memory of the happy future of communist society that was never achieved but was always existing somewhere ahead of us? For me the language of Bulgarian advertisement is related to the language of the totalitarian slogan and propaganda.

Mila Mineva (sociologist): I have a question for the architects and all people in the room. How would you respond if the “Mladost” housing project or at least one concrete panel apartment block is proclaimed to be part of the cultural heritage?

In as much as all seem to be attacking the advertisments I have to say that there are advertisments that make me laugh and I can't see why we should say that all advertisments as a whole are not nice? I think it's a different problem. What do I like in advertisement? I like the fact that advertisments are very different, that they are emitting a lot of messages and if we are talking about the people who live in this city, well, there are a lot of different people living in this city. Some of them are simply using different languages. The vision shows that these people are endlessly varied and in this way, they have made the city quite interesting, colourful and diverse place to live in.

Justine Toms: I represent both business and media and I do not know why everybody ganged up on the advertisments. There are very few cities where one can see such a great variety in one place. All of this is the result of the fact that we are not passive, meaning that even the smallest sign of the key maker and what not, comes to show that people are active doing things.

Oleg Mavromatti (artist): The problem of Sofia as well as of Bulgaria is that everybody is involved with things that are not his or her job. That's very frightening. When there are no true experts, when the architect starts to play an architect and cannot respond to the situation adequately, that means he is not being professional. The artist is playing various games and that's within the strategies of contemporary art. But when the discussion is involved with pircing certain puss pockets and wants to define the vector for development and so on, then the games of the artists take on a frightening look. Because then the artists are not doing their work either.

Margo Avramova (student of sociology): I think that the discussion so far has not defined any messages to the decision-making powers. The “lowest level” of advertisement was not touched upon. I think that on this level things are becoming gradually regulated. I personally am partial to things happening by themselves.

Ivaylo Ditchev (culturologist): So, we let things staying the way they are and what will happen? Here is what will happen - we are living in some space without having the impression that we are somewhere. We go to places that look similar. They are all saturated with the same signs. This tendency will lead us to a situation when everywhere there will be a McDonald's, everywhere there will be advertisement, everywhere there will be a few chapels, a little bit of communism, some concrete panel blocks. Everything will be everywhere and we will be living constantly in some sort of nowhere.

Lyben Kostov (artist): I would ask whether we are freethinking or overburdened? In the near past there were artistic councils in every city and they were approving all projects concerning advertisement in the city environment. Everywhere around the world everything is covered with advertisments, which is dictated by capital. I think it is simply meaningless to imagine that the process could be controlled in whatever way.

Ventzislav Zankov (artist): In my view the version, which Ivaylo Ditchev presented, that everything will become identical simply could not happen because there are different interests and a variety of levels. Money and interests are distributed differently on the different levels. I mean, to what extend do we think that we can interfere as some kind of citizens provided there are powerful financial interests. We are just wasting our time to talk about it. We are just playing the role of citizens who may have a voice in some way, although unheard, but still...

Voice from the floor: I am a student of anthropology. In my view interference is obligatory because non-interference equals decline.

Voice from the floor: I would like to say that the space occupied by a community is in many ways a reflection of the mentality of this community. So, if people do not differentiate between spaces and do not respect these, for instance, the space of political power or the space for artistic events, then maybe we should ask ourselves just how urban is the urban population of Sofia?

Alexander Kiossev: This discussion is a voice count actually. However, we must admit that so far the voices are not quite synchronous. It would not stop us though. I am one of those people who think that we should interfere and we will try to interfere keeping in mind how difficult and delicate this interference is. I am more of an optimist, like Dimitar Stoichev, who said that the Bulgarian business could be cultivated. Maybe it will not be that easy to cultivate it but in principle this can happen through debate and discussion although sometimes these are infested with not so democratic chaos.

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