Abstracts for Critique & Humanism 1/2005

Iara Boubnova
The city and the Visual Seminar

The text relates the “story” of the Visual Seminar, a multidisciplinary project of the Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia and the Center for Advanced Study in Sofia realized in partnership with relations, and initiated by the Federal Foundation of Germany. It starts with the initial inspiration and clarification of the conceptual platform for the Visual Seminar and goes on through describing the agenda and the major modules of activity of the project. The narrative follows chronologically the workings of all the modules of the Visual Seminar by specifying the issues elaborated in the resident fellows’ projects, the public debates, the guest artists’ statements, and the publications of the VS. By describing the role of all “players” in the activities of the VS, from the initiators to the invited participation of architects, politicians, media representatives, etc., the text elaborates the complex critical stand of the VS concerning the visual environment of the city of Sofia as a living environment of a neo-capitalist city, where the involvement of the citizens is a way to activate the resources of the civic society.

Alexander Kiossev
The mousetrap

The paper is an attempt to write a “history of ideas” of the Visual Seminar, a joint project initiated by the Institute for Contemporary Art, Sofia, together with the Center for Advanced Study, Sofia. The Visual Seminar is targeted at the modified visual environment of Sofia in the transition period, when the city was taken over by aggressive advertising images, new types of commercial architecture, and contemporary visual codes, making the city unbearable for the eye and hardly readable. The paper reports how the agenda of the Visual Seminar to intervene into that problematic city-space turned out to be immanently controversial, which resulted in identifying several differing positions: The civic position, claiming that the visual environment is the living environment in need of protection after the model of civil rights; the policy position, searching for cooperation with municipal authorities; the activist position, standing for rapid and radical interference; the anarchist position, inclined to provocations and scandals at the edge of the law; the critical intellectual position, falling back on public critique; the pedagogic position, aspiring to “educate” and “enlighten” the eye, etc.

The second part of the paper focuses on the individual project of the last fellow of the Visual Seminar – the video-installation Visual Police by the theatrical director Yavor Gardev. It is construed as a successful example of synthesizing and overcoming the controversies in the Seminar agenda by means of a combined technique of “television realism” and theatrical mystification. What is insisted is that Gardev’s project introduces a new significant issue in the agenda of the Seminar: viewing the city as a medium, Gardev is looking for the parallels between the city “screen” and the television screens. The installation implies that the medialization of the city is a complementary form of its being overloaded with images, a form that privatizes the public sphere and turns every discussion (interpreted here as a main form of achieving democracy) into a part of the image market.

Aldo Bonomi
Smooth space

Translated from: Mutations. Rem Koolhaas Harvard Project on the City. Stefano Boeri.
Multiplicity. Sanaford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Ed. Actar, Arc en r?ve, Centre

Vintila Mihailescu
Hybridity, a nickname of the post-industrial paradigm?

“The current fascination with cultural hybridity masks an elusive paradox. Hybridity is celebrated as powerfully interruptive and yet theorized as commonplace and pervasive.” (Werbner, 1997:1) If cultures are by their very ordinary nature hybrids ab originem and we are all hybrids, why and how should hybridity be used to describe an extra-ordinary aspect or dynamic of today’s cultures?

The paper is further questioning this “paradox”, showing that, in the field of anthropology, the concern with hybridity is a post-colonial (and post-national) conceptual reaction, both ideological and theoretical, to both “empire-building” and “nation-building anthropology” (Stocking, 1982), mainly aimed to dismantle the ideologies underlining these “classical” forms of anthropological thinking and thus handling properly with the present “fluid modernity” (Bauman, 1992). Hybridity is thus rooted in a change of world view and in a change of the world itself. But, as such, it is rather a poor conceptual and descriptive tool. As in the case of agency-oriented approaches, the “structure strikes back” is a case of hybridity too. This becomes obvious when trying to describe empirical cases of hybridity and discovering that there are quite many kinds of it that wait to be named.

Irina Genova
Images of modernity – the experience of city and nature. Early examples from the Balkans

The article is a part of an ongoing project, started in New Europe College, Bucharest, in 2005, thanks to the fellowship of the College. Modernity – represented and expressed in images from the Balkans – is a main interest in the project. The intention in this text is a close look at and interpretation of specific works from Bulgaria and Romania.

In visual arts, in painting from the Balkans, unlike in poetry, images of the modern city, before the wars (Balkans and First World War) were rare. Still rarer were the images of the modern Balkan city, of Sofia or Bucharest. Although the artists had their experiences, emotional and practical – they took a walk in the Prince Boris Garden in Sofia or Tceshmidjiu in Bucharest, dreaming and/or remembering Paris and Munich. Between the real and the fictional, the material culture and the poetry, Balkan artists had difficulties in reaching the image of the modern city “of their own”. However, pieces of art which expressed modern city dispositions existed, usually marginal in regard to the criteria of artistic prestige of the time. Such works of art – representing the city people’s attitude to nature, the shared experience of public spaces and interiors – are a subject of interpretation in this text. Along with them, pieces of the early art critique are discussed. Speculations on the missing “city”, omnipresent “nature”, as well as on the relations between realism and modernity in the critical texts of that time are proposed.

The discussed images of modernity in the Balkans (“modernity”, as well as “the Balkans” are thought of contextually and comparatively) are marked with eclecticism and “impurity” – a condition of (visual) culture out of history.

Vittore Collina
The urban imagery of George Orwell

In essays and novels by George Orwell, it is possible to find references, short descriptions, and reflections on some cities. The imagined city of London in 1984, for example; or the real cities of Paris, Barcelona, Wigan Pier, etc. The perspectives used are always very singular. They reflect his life experiences and his vision of social reality. They are strictly connected with the complex character of his literary work, full of ambivalences and of mirror effects, and pervaded by a deep human feeling as well as by a sound irony.

Luchezar Boyadjiev
Billboard heaven (Notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism)

The text explores the urban visuality of cities as a reflection of the state of society. Based on a comparison of examples from cities of mature capitalist societies, such as Paris and New York, as well as cities of developing neo-capitalist societies such as Sofia, Bucharest, and Istanbul, the author argues that neo-capitalism is a new kind of societal development, which is producing specific urban space and visual environments/interfaces of cities as a function of the interplay/rivalry between the economic and political aspects in the life of an urban society.

Valentin Danchev
What the symbol of Sofia symbolizes

The paper attempts to answer why, in the summer of 1998, the municipal authorities of Sofia suddenly decided to erect a “united metropolitan symbol”. What were the actual prerequisites and shortcomings that mobilized this unexpected administrative exercise in symbolic construction, given the long-term existence of Sofia (as a city and as a capital city) without any unified symbolic image? The question gets even deeper by virtue of two “seemingly” paradoxical circumstances. First, the monumental work – a statue-symbol named “St. Sofia” – does not incorporate any meanings referring to some historically specific or actually lived urban relations inscribed in the city space. Second, in the public scandal accompanying the erection of the St. Sofia statue, a stance was articulated that its design represented the result of a misinterpretation of the name of the capital city. The religious orthodox canons emphasized the historical fact that the city was named after the ancient temple “St. Sofia”, which was devoted to Christ as Wisdom of God (in Greek sophia) and had nothing to do with the sculptured image of a “young woman, pretty and wise, cultured and honourable, tempting and mysterious”, in short, the martyr Sofia with her daughters Faith, Hope, Love.

Such a contradictory situation evokes the impression of “senselessness”, “lack of logic”, and “thoughtlessness” of the statue-symbol, and hence there is only one step to the easy statement that its “ideologists” were wrong to place it in the centre of the city space. This paper departs from the deceptively smooth resolutions, and tries (through a reconstruction of the discourses of argumentation in the public debate and of their social and institutional embeddedness) to decipher the dynamic ensemble of structural social interrelations, which construct the “Symbol of Sofia” as it is determined. After tracing back the web of actions in the creation of the “Symbol of Sofia”, the research finds that the sculpture is in fact completely “logical”, since it represents an ensemble of socially valid principles, values, and practices, which in their type are adequate to the asymmetrically made up approach of organizing the urban environment. Along those lines it becomes now quite understandable why the “symbol of Sofia” sculpture does not represent any social relations that might be more or less relevant to the variety of public subjects in the capital city space. It, instead, rather replaces the relations and their public relevance by “imagining” a coherent value framework – the religious (Christian) roots of Sofia. That “substitution” already elucidates why the personal decision for erecting a united symbol of Sofia was not submitted to a preliminary debate, which could publicly put in question and deliberate, first, the conditions of (im)possibility of an united symbol within a heterogeneous metropolitan environment, and, second, the meanings that might be significant for the everyday life of the city and that could acquire a symbolic expression.

Boyan Manchev
The disfigured body and the fetish of the inorganic. Notes by a contemporary flaneur from Sofia

Could a walk by a contemporary flaneur in the city of Sofia become an exercise in critical thinking? Indeed yes, under the condition that it is an exercise in critical seeing. The critical thinker as flaneur or the contemporary flaneur as critical thinker? One thing is sure: both critical thinking and the flaneur have emerged as emblematic practices of modernity (to think but of Kant and Baudelaire), which cannot be dissociated from the modern concept of public space. What we call public space is, of course, one of the elements of modernity. It opens in the universal horizon of secular values: it is impossible without the suppression of the inaccessible theological transcendence and the establishment of the abstract but tangible space of the new secular universality: that of universal human rights, human reason, and secular ethics.

The starting hypothesis of this essay is that public space today undergoes a radical transformation. Today we witness the ongoing process of “resacralization” of public space, happening through media which were initially nothing but the instruments of self-representation of the public space. The public space is being transformed into a new media space. In accordance with this critical intuition, the flaneur from Sofia exercises his vision in discovering the symptomatic value of the monstrosity of the visual environment of his city: he sees it as a symptom of the radical transformation in question. But if the potential for transformation, or in other words, the technique, is the original condition of being human, then how should we confront the actual transformation of public space – and should we confront it at all?

Ivaylo Ditchev
Aesthetics of ruins

The text presents the city of Berlin as a stage of traumatisms that gradually pass from the status of moral obligation to remember to that of touristic curiosity. Even pubs of the young in the eastern part resemble wounds in the city tissue. The rest of the Berlin wall seems to be used as a sort of mobile ruin to disseminate the meaning of disaster.

Milena Iakimova
The redistribution of social prestice. Sofia, the end of the nineteenth century

This is a paper about the birth of new social and cultural practices, of new categories of identity in the first decades of Sofia’s modern history. It is also a paper about the ups and downs in the search for recognition of those new practices and identities.

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was the estate of officials and clerks that tangibly introduced a genuinely new social inequality in the city space – the social inequality between the equal in origin. Officials and clerks came out of the craftsman milieu and peasantry, and started gradually to distinguish themselves from the cultural practices of their own background. The distinction could be witnessed by various details: by clothing, by speech, by ways of consumption, by smoking cigarettes and gambling, if we like. By such new practices, officialdom was claiming to be a part of the “good society”, looking at the same time in the mirror of the craftsman estate (of its own birthplace, perceived now as commonalty), and asking from it to pay honour and recognition for the newly emerging identity of the salaried estate. That estate, however, was very peculiar in its emergence – it expected the offices and chancelleries to be scenes for great political deeds, and since that was not the case, the routine bureaucratic work seemed something unworthy to be done. While not doing it and waiting for the great political deeds, officials and even clerks could theorize about international affairs, create anecdotes about their supervisors, live a bohemian life, and feel themselves as missionaries of history. Did they succeed in finding recognition for their new practices? Did they succeed in shifting the categories of social prestige?

Raycho Pozharliev
Pubs and restaurants

The subject of this paper is the historical development of pubs and restaurants, these specific phenomena of the urban culture, without which it would appear simple and lifeless.

This comparative historical analysis challenges the radical confrontation between pubs and restaurants as related to the dichotomy premodern-modern. The author shows that specific elements of restaurant culture existed in Antiquity; and signs of re-traditionalized culture can be found in our postmodern time. But the focus of the paper is on the emergence of the European restaurant in the period of the 1879 French Revolution and its functional relation to the spirit of modernity. The restaurant expresses such modern features as individualization of eating patterns, the principle of equal civil rights, cultivation of refined tastes, and the appearance of fashion. Those features – compared to other working conceptual dichotomies such as male-female, survival-pleasure, eating-drinking – form the conceptual framework for the better understanding of pubs and restaurants in the city space.

Svetlana Paunova
The social construction of urban infrastructure (Notes on the building of Sofia’s waterworks, around the turn of twentieth century)

This article deals with the specific constellation of social relations around the building of the centralized waterworks of Sofia after the formation of the Bulgarian state in 1878, and thus enters the interdisciplinary field between science and technology studies and urban history. This particular case study focuses on the existing discussions about failure of modern technologies at certain places and under certain circumstances. The knot of social relations which envelops the waterworks does not allow the transfer of the infrastructure to be interpreted in a straight, technocratic manner (as a problem of the most efficient technical decision), neither completely economically (as a problem of the product sales in a rational and transparent system), nor just administratively (as a sanction of the success of scientific reason, which is bringing the technological progress everywhere). The social construction of technology means not only invention or transfer of some technical equipment, but also putting it in stable frames of production, interpretation, and use. The social configurations in the capital Sofia after the Liberation in 1878 are a significant obstacle for the successful building and standard functioning of the waterworks, because the agents who can “give life” to it are missing. The resistance against the whole set of infrastructural innovations could be read as a display of the presence of alternative models of infrastructural usage, which are also specific entities of particular technologies, practices, and symbolic forms. These models were eroded, but not liquidated at once, by the commodification of water, on the one hand, and the changing model of use, on the other. The slow process of capitalization of the traditionalistic Bulgarian economy did not allow the new technologies of waterworks to be intertwined significantly with the industrial production. In such a sense, as a sign for the technological modernization of the economy, the introduction of waterworks could be interpreted equivocally.

Elitza Stanoeva
A discourse on city modernization: The construction of the tram network in Sofia (1901-1934)

Transport infrastructure of the modern city is not merely a novel urban amenity but moreover a new principle of organizing urban space. Inasmuch as inhabited space is not a neutral environment for social interactions, individual and collective practices, taking place within it but rather a receptacle of power and coercion, its structural transformation brings also a social transformation of the rituals of public conduct. The planning of the tramlines in Sofia followed the political logic of spatial arrangement and in accord with it the tram network reproduced newly established class stratification into spatial order. Certain social groups were privileged with an easy access to the new transportation service since their participation in public life was stimulated whereas less affluent social groups that were being gradually marginalized and pushed to the periphery of the city were more or less isolated from the mass transit routes.

However, structural and visual order imposed by authorities was confronted by the routine praxis of residents. In regard to the electric transportation this confrontation manifested itself as a discrepancy between political expectations projected along the lines of accelerated modernization and adoption of European technical progress and pragmatic necessities of urban population projected along the lines of well established traditional practices and daily exchange. Tram travel was a new type of praxis requiring certain changes in all the other routine practices and therefore an overall adjustment of public behaviour to the new modes of urban mobility. Around the turn of the century Sofia residents were accustomed to travelling in the city on foot and had adapted the trajectories of their daily mobility to this rhythm of life. Moreover, urban mass transport required anonymous forms of using public space and distanced forms of social interaction that were unusual for the traditional community.

Through the history of constructing the tram network in Sofia the article analyzes the tension between political visions of urban arrangement and popular strategies of preserving habitual urban life. It tries to explicate the interrelation between spatial rearrangement and social reconfiguration and ultimately, the mutual dynamics between modernizing the city and modernizing the citizen.

Svetla Kazalarska
Once upon a time… There was the town of Kotel. Urban representations, narratives, and identities in transition

This article comes as a result of anthropological field research in the Bulgarian town of Kotel, carried out within the framework of the project “City in transition. Local development and forms of civic participation. Culture as a resource”, supported by the Open Society Institute Foundation – Sofia (2003-2004). The project aims at identifying patterns of urban development in Bulgaria in the transition period, at provoking a series of debates around local cultural identities as a resource for development and mobilization of civic participation, as well as at recommending specific policies to this end to the local and central authorities. The article presents findings and interpretations, resulting from the interviews carried out with representatives of the local elites in the town of Kotel – one of the ten towns and cities, included in the project’s research agenda – in an attempt to reconstruct the urban representations, narratives and identities of the town and its residents in a situation of transition.

Kiril Prashkov
Responsible painting

For some time now, I feel it necessary to present a certain type of painting that has penetrated Sofia. It’s probably the nearest to my conceptual understanding for the development of this form of fine art. This type of painting is “performed” by non-professional “artists” who are becoming professional by default when protecting their homes from the elements. Some would call what they are doing “monumental decoration” or “wall painting” (although its scale surpasses the most daring plan for a city panel). However, its links with the history of art, quite obvious in fact, are far removed from the local tradition in the field and clearly point out towards the avant-garde from the first half of the twentieth century I have already said “has penetrated”…The kind of painting from that period is so very unpopular in Bulgaria, in all respects and contexts, that it is amazing how easy the phenomenon of “modern painting” has bypassed the local ideological/educational/urban dogmas in order to master the appearance of many Sofia districts in great force.

There is also mastering of the audience, much larger then the audience for any show could ever be, as well as completely dedicated to the quality of the art on display. This is a kind of art, which is always in front of their eyes, always active, hopefully for the better.

Angel Angelov
Comments on “‘The end of art history’: Opinions and polemics” by Chavdar Popov

The paper comments another paper, “Art Criticism and Postmodernism. The thesis about the “‘End of art history’: Opinions and polemics”, by Chavdar Popov, published in Problems of Art, no. 1/2005. Without geographical reference, Chavdar Popov thinks of postmodernism as of an actual condition, while I consider it to be history even for Bulgaria. The main objection is that presenting postmodernity today as an abstract actuality beyond any social geography is ahistorical.

Instead, another understanding of actuality is suggested together with a different construing of some general concepts – plastic image, representation, visual image – with regard to the scholarly and social experience in Bulgaria during the last twenty years. In my view, in humanities and in art in Bulgaria certain things had evolved in such a way that we cannot get released from their influence even if we wished. I attempt to ground the ethical reasons motivating the concern with visual image, as well as the understanding of the disciplinary scholarly practices through a hermeneutics of uncertainty.

Published 3 March 2006
Original in English

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