I first met Boriana, Mladen and Miro – the three members of Nebudu group – online in December last year. I had come across their work “Tabula rasa” rather accidentally on the Web, googling to find information on some other question I was interested in at the time. Intrigued by the information I found on them on various sites, and concretely about their work at <billboart.org>, which linked it very well with the topic of the project I had been invited to curate for the Center of Contemporary Art in Plovdiv. I contacted them right away. “Tabula rasa” is participating in its authentic variant as a billboard in the exhibition I am curating, “Critique of Pure Image – Between Fake and Quotation”, from 7 October to 8 November. This took a bit of effort on the part of the organizers, who had to fight against the prejudices of local companies leasing out billboard space in the city's public space. But the result of our common effort is that now, “Tabula rasa” will be provoking and delighting its fans and the citizens of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

The interview was taken over e-mail at the beginning of September 2005.

Interview with Nebudu group

Concept and questions: Dimitrina Sevova

Let us speak about “Tabula rasa.” As a starting point I would like to use the title itself. In your concrete case it is apparently quite important in order to contextualize your work and find the key to a possible interpretation. May we start right with the meaning of the Latin expression which you use literally, without any paraphrasing or other references – an expression which designates the situation in which the board with wax used as a writing support in the Roman Empire is cleared, i.e., its surface equalized, so that it can be used again? Could you share how “Tabula rasa” – created as a “billboard” specifically for the urban public space – clears the past, equalizes the surface to make way for the future?

Mladen: We do not want to clear out the past, but rather to show the influence exerted by the past on the societies that have been limited in their consumption and now feel a thirst to consume as much as they can. “Тabula rasa” shows the new beginning – a generation that has grown up with this passion. We are saying that the waxed slate has been cleaned and can be used once again.

Boriana: This leads me right to one of the aspects that we developed when we came up with “Tabula rasa”, which is the role of the new European Union members and the question I’m permanently asking myself: was this the only path we could take after the changes, and is this really the Eden of our dreams, different from the one before 89/90? In this sense “Tabula rasa” is just this slate that has been cleaned of old ideals and symbols, in order to be filled with new ones. Another interpretation of this expression is the blank page of paper, a metaphor for the soul of a newborn baby that appears on this world unburdened, and in time fills the page with information and experience, but this sounds all too idealistic. I think that in our case we’re getting rather closer to Kant’s interpretation that we appear on this world already marked with the heredity of our makers, and there is no way out – and there’s always someone who has made us.

Miro: For me the expression “Tabula rasa” in itself is as worn out as the waxed slate. It rather depicts the impossibility for a “blank page” to exist. When we speak about a clean start we are speaking of heavy, multilayered systems of values that enter into the right to call something clean or new.

There is also a variant in which the title itself might refer to the baby itself, in the traditional sense of this notion, but it can also refer to the mechanism by which the advertising business itself works, where the new advertising replaces the old, i.e., invalidates it and sets a new, “cleaned” beginning.

With “Tabula rasa” you definitely provide a vision that can be interpreted as subversive. Getting out of the comfort of the gallery space, radicalizing the public space, isn’t there a danger that this vision may be rather hard to digest to a part of the public? Do you believe that the visual culture of the public, of the passers-by, of the so-called average citizen, will be sufficient to allow the reception, interpretation and decoding of “Tabula rasa”? Do you think it possible to the contemporary artist to develop critical thinking, to influence public opinion through their work, shown in a public space?

Miro: Yes! Yes!

Boriana: I firmly believe in this! Working in public space is one of the few possibilities open to the contemporary artist to communicate with people out there in society, who may not currently be interested in the theme of art and in questions regarding its aims. Unfortunately in Bulgaria (and not only there), it’s quite rare to come across this type of projects. In my opinion there is a strong need for them at the moment. Bearing in mind what the mass media are serving, and the oversaturation with products and advertisings in the public space. This is why I think it is important to form a sober, critical thinking, to work more in this direction. In “Tabula rasa” we wanted to present the idea in a clean way – in a striking way. Even if it offers the possibility to be interpreted with different nuances the basic meaning we put into the work is understood in most cases (at least as far as I am aware) by a quite varied audience. I sincerely hope that this is true also of the average passer-by.

Mladen: When we came up with “Tabula rasa” we noted that a large part of the audience might catch the idea backwards. We were imagining people who are delighted to see their favorite brands tattooed on that sweet little baby and are dying to do the same with their kids, or enthusiastically tell others about that cool ad they’ve seen. We were not worried about this possible misunderstanding, because we like the irony in such a reaction. This said, from our experience with the project so far, we know that until now the idea has not been misunderstood, and nobody has had any trouble identifying it.

In “Tabula rasa” you make masterly use of the language of advertising in order to endow the vision with a special type of totality – creating an “icon” image, quite canonical, along a tradition that started with Romulus and Remus and confirmed itself in the representations of the Holy Mother – according to the rules of the advertising business and its strategies linked to the urban space. You are using one of the most characteristic functions of contemporary photography – to create “creative” icon photographs, the images of the icon products. How do you deal with this contradiction? A contradiction inevitably faced by every contemporary artist using the very instruments, the media, means and methods they criticize?

Boriana: I personally find nothing wrong with contradictions! On the contrary, I think the world in which we live is full of them, and far from me the idea to try to present it black and white. Contradictions often provoke the creation of new things. Concretely with respect to “Tabula rasa” I think that the use of the language of advertising in this project is an absolute must and makes it is easier to digest. Advertising takes on a leading position in contemporary society, and I find precisely this to be a good opportunity, to use this strong tool to express one’s ideas and criticism. They might contribute to a change in the relations and visual language of the society with respect to society itself, its surrounding environment and the processes resulting from these dependencies. I consider that the advantages of advertising are considerable, and they should be used. Unfortunately I find that its aims, in the cases in which it appears massively, are false.

Mladen: The language of advertising is a strong communication tool, which we use because we want our message to reach as far as possible. The use of other means might successfully transmit our idea, but they would not make the same impression. Besides, this work is aimed precisely at the users of this language.

Miro: In my opinion the contradiction appears in the moment in which advertising has a monopoly over social norms. We all, even those who criticize it, are part of it. It has become a voice that creates and then approves of or stigmatizes a given phenomenon. What is cool and what is uncool? What will change our lives and what will help us rise above the others? It has become the keen eye of Puritanism, ready to fabricate any image that will confirm “positive values” (healthy teeth or clean wash).

Brands have long taken the role of the Party or the Church. If we have a need for God, they will provide him to us. If we feel the need for revolution, they will take its place.

In short: “We’re in it!”

It turns out that “Tabula rasa” was made about a year before the latest political events this year related to the vote on the European constitution and its complete failure at the referendums in France on 29 May and in the Netherlands on 1 June, with the whole follow-up pile of criticism and political analysis on how corporate transnational business is being endorsed and receives unlimited rights at the expense of a social and human politics that would endow people with more rights. And so “Tabula rasa” may be interpreted as an artistic metaphor representing on the one hand a synthesized visual analysis of the political situation in Europe, and on the other anticipating the events – presenting a visual image of our fears? In a possible psychoanalysis of the image, once again the image of the Monster comes to the fore, born of our own fears, of our own powerlessness in the face of the opportunism of our meandering between accepting and rejecting our identifying with this comfort that is the consequence of our partaking in this consumers’ paradise. Constricted in our choices by a false freedom arising from the profusion of ostensible opportunities for choosing, are we not going to find ourselves slaves to the empire of the sign – the world of the linguistic matrix. Undressed, naked in an aesthetic reminiscent of antique canonical beauty. Once again a birth, once again mother and child in a Roman-Christian-European tradition that started out with the She-Wolf of the Capitol and continued in the ostentatio mammarum, all the way to the advertising campaign of Gucci for the autumn-winter season two years ago (that series with a young woman dressed in luxurious cloth and expensive fur, holding a naked infant). For the norm of the global consumer in the new economics the sign is sufficient. It can be interpreted as a sign of quality, vitality, prestige and power – it turns out that where there are signs there is ideology. What is this new ideology, in your opinion?

Mladen: I’ll try in simpler words. Topics like anti-globalization, social and human politics, the struggle against the over-saturation by advertising are to some degree familiar in the Western world. To a greater or lesser extent the society is faced with them and has its set opinion. They are discussed in order to throw dust in people’s eyes so that they’re satisfied, while they buy this or that bio product. Even those who use the system and accumulate “prosperity” know how to behave if they want to be part of “the good.” It’s not this situation that incited us to make “Tabula rasa.” We live in this system, fight against it, but we know that it feeds us and we are therefore obedient. A mother breastfeeding her infant child, whose soft skin is embroidered with tattoos, is a sufficiently strong message to a Western person, but it does not tell them anything new. They are used to this topic, and it will only confirm their biased opinion. This is why the main “target” of “Tabula rasa” are people from the new member countries of the European Union and those eagerly waiting to join. We are shocked by the methods and the way in which media propaganda is applied, and the unconsidered use of the situation in which an exposed and vulnerable young society finds itself, a society that could have concentrated its potential in a different direction. You’re born and you’re already part of the system, you cannot yourself demand and feel what you need and what compels you to live. Someone out of your television set tells you what to do.

Miro: Nowadays we speak of a totalitarianism of the brands, which in its kind differs from the totalitarianism of the Church, the Party or other ideologies in that it has been created as a “disposable good.” It comes to the surface, and the surface remains the only carrier of values. “What does it look like?” The values surface from the inside out in order to be worn and thrown out, in order to be replaced by newer, better and more expensive values.

Boriana: I find your interpretation of “Tabula rasa” quite accurate. I’d like to add to this, though, the question of what is the role taken by the so-called New Europe – the countries in the process of transition towards this system –, since we made “Tabula rasa” a year ago, bearing in mind that it would be shown in 12 cities in Europe, 11 of which in post-Communist European countries (billboart.org), while Bulgaria had not joined in in this action.

What ideology, and why? One more contradiction… I don’t know? – but what I find reassuring to some extent is that the number of people who openly have something against it is growing. And when I look around, nature also isn’t having a ball! – which possibly at some point will lead to a change. The problem if you ask me is not in aspirations to comfort, but rather in realizing and setting its borders. The opportunism and cynicism of the great countries, the lack of common goals are the things I think are ruining us. Or if I try to look optimistically, perhaps the things that will cause the transition to the next level, who knows.

What are your expectations about the effect of the presentation of “Tabula rasa” in the public space of a city like Plovdiv, located in South-Eastern Europe? Do you generally foresee a fundamental reaction of the public, related mostly to the social feelings towards the European Union and Bulgaria’s potential membership in it – this political, economic and cultural effort of the Bulgarian citizens, and the result of these efforts which is periodically postponed to sometime in the near future? At the same time, it is as if the citizens in Bulgaria were used to seeing in the streets – in the public space – rather completely uncritical images linked to this idea, or literal images with direct slogans, recognizable as clear advertising of the Union about the benefits of the country’s membership in it, or part of the insipid advertising tricks used by the local political campaigns of the consecutive political formation to be to a large extent completely discredited. I suppose that you know that the public opinion on this question hesitates between utter distrust and the acceptance of the Union as the fairy from the tales who will, with her magic wand, make possible the impossible, i.e., with a turn of the wand will arrange all spheres of social life, such as the judicial system, economics, etc., will bring back what’s missing, and turn the entire society into a rich developed society of quite humane and reasonable consumers who not only value Human Rights but also personal freedoms, etc. For yet other this is not the image of the fairy, but rather the vision of the European Union is linked with that of another Union from the time before the fall of the Berlin wall, in which for the Bulgarian society many impossible things turned out to be possible, i.e., most problems were solved once again on the fairy-tale level.

Mladen: “Get away with that baby!” – “Au-ooh, that baby’s gross!” – “Who’s the mother on the picture?” – These are some of the comments I’ve heard from Bulgarians regarding “Tabula rasa.” Of course I don’t consider that there will be many such statements, but the quotes show our Bulgarian nature very well. We don’t like to be told what to do and feel offended when we are told the truth in our face. I don’t expect any specific reaction, and I’m curious to see what it will be. I wish that opinions on the topic will be shaped, and would like to listen to what the average passers-by confronted with the billboard are saying.

Once I asked a taxi driver what he thought about advertising in Bulgaria, what he had remembered and whether something was bothering him. He said that the tons of advertising were not bothering him, but the only ones he’d remembered and even rated as rather top quality, were advertisings for alcohol with deeply sexual content, so that “Tabula rasa” may meet with great interest.

I don’t think that such a great part of the local audience will make the link between the content of the poster and the European Union. Yes indeed, this is the aim, but I think that for now the topic of global Europe exhausts itself in the dream for a better life, and the realization of the fact that this dream will not come true, and in spite of it the presence of some national self-consciousness, that “we’ve also made it.” Whether Bulgarians however realize that their dream of a better life is precisely the content of “Tabula rasa”?

Miro: The work was originally conceived for the cities of Central and Eastern Europe, where the process of transition has grown up to pioneer age [the socialist countries had created children and youths organizations modeled after the scouts: the pioneer organizations, in which all children aged 10-14 years were members – translator’s note]. Whereas the Western eye, saturated with images, is likely to ignore it, the eyes in the East are still hungry for images; they’ll swallow the baby and mother and will cry for more. I hope rather that in the digestive process there will be some side effect.

Boriana: I don’t expect a fundamental visible reaction, but rather hope that a reaction will take place in the heads of people, about where we are and where we are headed, both as an individual and as a society. What I also hope is that people may be motivated to participate more consciously in the processes going on at the moment in a country like Bulgaria, because expressing criticism while waiting for Godot will not change much. And whether it will be called Communism, Capitalism or Euroism I don’t think is of great importance.

And here’s a question of the stereotypical type linked to an approach which I very much like to criticize – referring to the geographical location of those interviewed and contextualizing their work in that East-West discussion in the context of contemporary art. Here in your case things are somewhat turned around, which is why I’d like to hear your comment. What I mean to say is that “Tabula rasa” was made in the West, in a quite Western context, by artists who come from the East but are rather clearly “Western,” bearing in mind that you studied at the University of Applied Art in Vienna, and the fact that you are based and work in the West. At the same time the first presentation of “Tabula rasa” was part of a project in Eastern Europe, and now it is once more being shown in the East as part of the project “Critique of Pure Image – Between Fake and Quotation” in the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. At the same time I understand that you are also often in Bulgaria. How do you experience this “crossing” – something like Copy and Paste – between contexts? What do you do, on a personal and artistic level, with the gap between cultural norms, and how to you situate yourself in this East-West discussion?

Boriana: This is for me a rather amusing question, when I think that I realized my Eastern origin only after I went to the West. To the extent that one can in fact say that Austria and more specifically Vienna can stand for the notion of the West. I cannot say that I have been perceived all that differently there from here. On the contrary, the distance and the regular back-and-forth between the place I came from and the place I live now are helping me realize and understand better, it seems to me, the links between the directions, between East-West. I feel neither part of nor excluded from any given environment, and this pushes me to deal with and take interest in both one and the other; it is precisely this mixture that lies at the ground of most projects on which I am working.

Miro: I can no longer imagine giving up the comfortable position of a migrant between contexts. I feel that with my personal refusal of a clearly defined belonging and the acceptance of an outsider status, it became much clearer to me how these two bordering parties mutually influence each other. Where they are scanning each other, the mechanisms by which they define each other. Because I think that our very defining ourselves is a negative value and serves mainly to underline the difference between you and “the other.”

Mladen: I feel involved with the East, because that’s where I grew up, and I’m linked with this environment. “Here” I learned many new things and I’ve developed in a direction that’s pushing me ahead. What about North-South? I like to change directions. Every move to a new environment gives me much information.