code flow - e-texts

Sofia – Plovdiv – Sofia

From: sevo(at)


Dear Oliver,

I know that you and Pascal are planning to spend your holidays in Bulgaria this year. Please do not look at the following letter as to anti-advertising for my favorite motherland. I’d just like to tell you about how the boom on the international art market reverberates between the smoking guns of street fights of local mafia gangs and the wishes of the local art scene.

Arriving in Sofia I found I had forgotten my toothbrush in Zurich. Since all shops had closed by that time, I had to take a taxi and find one of the 24h pharmacies. I found out that all 24h pharmacies are now equipped with armored counters through which you communicate with the pharmacist via a microphone. So that the entire square hears the next client explain: something against a headache! a pack of sanitary towels! condoms, please, please! In fact, this is surely in line with European standards.

I went to my studio, which before being mine used to be my parents’. It’s on the 16th floor of a tower-block dating back to the late socialist period, and is located on the outskirts of Sofia. During the night, I suddenly woke up in cold sweat. Outside I could hear embittered gun shooting. I heard high-pitch male voices shouting, and then the sirens of the police cars. Dogs were barking, and the alarms of the cars parked around the blocks were squealing savagely. I had heard of a new war being waged between several mafia business groups, but reality tends to be harder than the news.

I had no intention of seeing colleagues and visiting exhibitions. I had come for a short time and had other work to take care of. Despite my good intentions my time plan turned out to be filled with daily meetings with the local art scene. The Red House, which really deserves its name, being painted a saturated, aggressive red all over, not only on the outside, but even inside, seems to be the only public space officially representing contemporary art in the capital city. There were two exhibitions on traffic and migration. One group show with video installations and video art, and the other with photographs by the Vienna-based Borjana Ventzislavova. Both exhibitions were on a very good level, completely competitive on the international art scene. Both worked out very well in that red surrounding. I was trying to imagine how a different exhibition would fit in on this background, one that did not explore trafficking in East European women onto Western red-light streets.

I traveled from Sofia to Plovdiv. The temperature reached something like 40 centigrade in the shade, and had done so for some days in a row. The asphalt was melting. Good thing there was at least air conditioning on the bus. In Plovdiv the heat was even more intense than in Sofia. There were hardly any people on the streets. I had come to attend a meeting between the Center for Contemporary Art I work with, and the Austrian curators of a corporate collection of contemporary art. Their collection focuses on a short historical period: from the end of the 90s till now. This sounded really intriguing: to buy truly contemporary art as an intellectual and material investment for your company. Their collection features from Maurizio Cattelan to quite a number of East European authors, not only like Nedko Solakov and Milica Tomic, but also the Moscow radicalist Anatoly Osmolovsky, Attila Csörgö, Boris Ondreiycka. We had received a sudden e-mail announcing their visit to Bulgaria for a few days of exploring the market. They were interested in the local Plovdiv scene, local artists working in contemporary art, and the work of the Center as a place actively contributing to this context.

The meeting, as a true business meeting, was fixed in advance in terms of from and to time, and the e-mail hinted that the appointment was formal and strict. The corporate curators were late. More than half an hour into the one hour fixed for the appointment, one of my colleagues asked: “What’s up? Them Westerners are never late for a meeting, are they?” And then they called. Traffic had slowed them down on the highway from Sofia to Plovdiv, and they were to arrive any moment now. There was many of them. In any event, they outnumbered us. Something like 7 or 8 of them. They dominated. Not only in numbers, but also with a colonial self-confidence. Emanating that type of professional distance as if we had been on our knees begging for this meeting. But that may just have been them keeping back their curiosity. When they arrived, they already knew everything. About the local scene, the local market, about this or that center for contemporary art… They did not so much ask questions, but rather explained where, how and what THERE WAS NOT, what WAS MISSING in the local art scene. They demonstrated an enviable level of competence. As if they had spent long months researching the ins and outs of the local scene. Apparently they had not wasted their time in the capital and had met those who really have a say on the local level – the monopoly of the Sofia experts. That’s what always happens. For years. Regardless of whether it is curators on research trips, a collector who has appeared out of nowhere, or some other important figure of the international art scene or NGO circles: They stop in Sofia first, and after that they are saturated and do not want to know anything more, because they know everything.

They asked how come so much media art is represented and promoted not only by the Center, but more generally in the local Bulgarian art scene, given as it is so hard to preserve, restore, collect and correspondingly sell. They found some sort of almost mythic link between the politics of the Center and the Berlin scene, which personally surprised me. I asked them how they had found out about the Center, since this meeting had been unexpected for us. They told me they had found the site googling, on the occasion of their new Plovdiv office. They left courteously, but enigmatically, without a mention of any follow-up. In any event, I think it’s nice that besides Sofia experts there is also the INTERNET.

After the meeting with the corporate curators we dragged ourselves to a restaurant for a light dinner with the current Austrian residents of the laboratory of the Center. They thought the meeting with the corporate curators had gone extremely well. And that we had been great. They are a couple of very young, very nice and very promising artists from Graz, working under the common name UNZ. (with the full stop!). I asked them about their expectations towards their stay in Plovdiv. And why they are here. I got the standard answer. New place, new experience, interesting and quite different environment from the one they’re used to. They complained only about the lack of English speakers, both among the local artists and other people they’d come across in their everyday life in Plovdiv. This made things difficult. It was almost impossible for them to get in touch with the local scene. Besides that, they did not understand why everybody was afraid of their puppy dog. Which was such a cutie and so good. I gave them my interpretation of things. Their dog was tigered, and for most people on the streets of BG that is a signal to watch out. Because the bad dogs in BG more often than not feature precisely that pattern. A substantial number of people in Bulgaria send their darling pets to dog school so they become vicious and perfect combat dogs, rather than learn good manners. Despite being outlawed, dog fights have been something of a national sport over the past 10 years, and the bets are such strong bait for their owners with their golden chains around the neck and their rustling nylon sweat suit pants. The news broadcasts in the media are full of information about innocent victims of pit bulls, Rottweilers and countless other pure-breed and non-breed curs around the city’s streets and parks. To top it all, whole packs of homeless dogs linger all over the place despite regular attempts to take appropriate measures and to mass-castrate them. Nonetheless I think that dogs are cool, but please, colleagues, understand the people! At that moment the waiter had decided to prove what it means in all practicality not only to have no clue of English, but even to be unable to understand: Two Shopska salads! spoken in Bulgarian with an Austrian accent. So that I had to translate from Bulgarian with an Austrian accent to Bulgarian with a Plovdiv accent: Two Shopska salads!

On the way back, when I found out that the tickets for the last bus from Plovdiv to Sofia were sold out, I almost got used to the thought that I’d stay overnight in Plovdiv, as much work as I had in Sofia. It turned out that another bus, transiting from Istanbul to Sofia, would pick up the last travelers stuck like me from the central bus station. On the bus I did not receive a ticket or seat; I only had to give the money to the driver. I was happy about my luck, as were apparently the other travelers about theirs. On the bus I got thinking about the meeting with the corporate curators. The only public space for contemporary art in a city of 350’000 with several universities, clearly profiled art high-schools, and all sorts of other official institutions – should one expect of this space to professionally mediate or sell on the art market? The Center has a nice documentation, but predominantly about its own events. There is no collected and accessible professional documentation and information personally about the artists. And anyway, is there such compiled documentation available anywhere in Bulgaria at the moment? Portfolios, catalogs and other information?

Inspired by the meeting with the corporate curators I decided to undertake a dangerous adventure and despite everything to take a stroll around the local art market and understand what’s going on with the Bulgarian art market. I whirled through the private galleries for fine art of the capital. Because there are no commercial galleries for contemporary art. The Bulgarian art market is just not comparable to any other art market. Simply because it does not exist. This is not to say that there are no artists whose works speak an international language, put global questions and are at an international level. But they are still a great riddle, both to a local audience with purchasing power or collectors, and to an international audience. If it’s not some Western institution, usually no mediating authorities are accepted. All the more serious artists are selling their works directly out of their studios, or they do not sell at all because they do not produce to that end. What about the local collectors, whether they be private persons, financial groups or corporate representatives? What dominates massively is traditional art, completely outside any context, not only international, but also local.

On the last evening of my stay I paid a visit to friends, a Bulgaro-Scottish couple living between Edinburgh and Sofia. Now over the summer they are based outside the capital city in their family house. They had prepared a great dinner, salmon on some outrageously tasty Scottish sauce. I was wondering whether they had bought it deep-frozen, or whether the pieces had been fresh. As far as I’m aware, they are yet to start selling fresh salmon in Bulgaria.

I find out that my friends, who come from the media art practices and digital discourse, are planning to launch their new project in the new season, i.e., in autumn: To open the only commercial gallery for truly contemporary art in Sofia, and in BG. They will have at their disposal two spaces, one in Edinburgh, the other in Sofia. I understand that her family, who has a solid business in Sofia, has built an office building on the most expensive street of Sofia, on Vitoshka just next to Armani, and now with her husband they’ll have the ground floor for their Sofia gallery. They’ll be working predominantly with about ten authors, artists from both East and West, and offer them in both East and West. Like the highly successful Peres Projects in Los Angeles and Berlin or Ibid Projects spanning London and Vilnius. Also with spaces both in the East and the West. They figure that in Sofia there is a great niche, and their success is guaranteed, and in Edinburgh as well. Besides this, they are among the very few super experts who can afford to circle between the local market and the international art scene.

They had just come back from the Romanian Biennale of Contemporary Art. Rumor of it had already spread all the way to Zurich. The scene in Bucharest is split largely in two – the people around the Biennale and Dan Perjovschi on the one hand, the Others around the Museum of Contemporary Art in the former Ceausescu Palace, and its director Ruxandra Balaci. As far as I understand, at this moment they mutually boycott each other, think in theirs and ours, communists and democrats, rich and poor. We were commenting on this, thinking that this was exactly like at home. I received from my friends a catalog of the Biennale, of which they had picked up several copies. It looked very professional, very nice. Indeed done on a tight budget with lots of human energy and personal effort, with that East-European radical appeal that can defuse any criticism.

After dinner they proposed to drive me to my studio by car. It was around midnight. On one of the main boulevards leading from the neighborhood of Svoboda (Liberty) to that of Nadezhda (Hope) Part 4 it turned out that we had the incredible chance to be in the midst of real live action. Although only as witnesses. Several police cars had cordoned off the street. Sirens, police, arrested youths prostrated on the hood of the police cars, handcuffed behind their backs. I asked to be dropped off just in the entrance of my block.

My studio is quite a beauty. Besides the fact that it’s filled with loads of books, photographs and other objects sentimental to me, it has a security system linked up to the offices of a private security company, which according to the contract arrives on the spot within 3 to 5 minutes should there be any problem. There’s even a panic button you can carry around with you. And a great panoramic view. It’s really beautiful, especially in the evenings. You can see all of Sofia as if in the palm of your hand, on the background of the Vitosha mountain. I opened the windows, from which flowed, instead of a fresh nightly breeze, more hot air, enriched with turbofolk melodies and the faraway voices of some hardcore football fans who were drinking out their brandy before going each in their direction. I decided to run myself a bath. Heavens, there was even hot water! Sofia has a system for community heating, so that hot water is sold centrally. Throughout the week in this unimaginable heat, I don’t know why, maybe the pressure was insufficient or there was some other problem, but up on the 16th floor there was no hot water during the day. It’s cool in the end to be able, at the end of the day, to take a bath and then fall asleep.

This article was originally published in WeAreTheArtists No. 8 (August-December 2006).