Digital Assets
Galina Dimitrova and Jen Southern
a-n Magazine, December 2000

After a year of on-line communication and collaboration, in September 2000 six Manchester artists travelled to Sofia, Bulgaria to work with four Bulgarian artists to install the public interactive video series "Urban Cycles". Initiated by the Interspace Media Centre, Sofia the project will also be presented by IDEA, Manchester in Mrach 2002.Here, project curator Galia Dimitrova and participating artist Jen Soutehrn discuss this cultural exchange.


DIMITROVA: Although the current BG art scene is eclectic it can be regarded as two disparate groups: conventional arts as painting, sculpture and graphics and on other hand ‘new visuality’ art forms. Because of Bulgaria’s Communist past contemporary art in Bulgaria has a relatively short history. It is only about 10 years since the first performances, installations and public art took place. In the early 90s many artists worked with performance and installation and by the mid 90s there were the first artistic activities at new media arts — video, and multimedia installations. However the art scene has dynamically developed and what were "marginal artistic situations" are now reflected in the activities of Bulgarian artists whose work is seen in a more global context.

The ‘liberalism’ in socio-cultural life stimulates the setting up of many art groups and organisations, whose activities are based mainly on creation of projects involving a new generation of Bulgarian art often with international participation as artists run spaces try to develop network of artists across BG and abroad. e.g.: "Locally/Interested" an exhibition organised by ICA in November 99 which presented artists such as Douglas Gordon, Peter Kogler, Oleg Kulik and Pipilotti Rist.

The organisations Interspace, ICA, Art Today and HO ACA are founded with NGO status or are artistic run spaces, which don’t have public institutional support. To exist and realise projects they rely exclusively on outside support, mainly from BG and European Foundations which have programs for cultural project grants. These are usually the Soros Centre for Arts, ProHelvetia, British Council and the Goethe Institute. Projects such as Urban Cycles also found sponsorship from companies like 3M.

There is minimal public support for state institutions like museums, national and municipal galleries, and art academies however these institutions activities are greatly reduced and collecting of works rely on grants by artists or private collectors.

The activities of these institutions National Art Gallery and Union of BG Artists together with some private galleries Drita, Art-36 and Alexander promote a small circle of artists, shaping some kind of "elite" official art scene presenting "classical" arts. There are few galleries which exclusively exhibit contemporary art these include both ATA and XXL in Sofia. There are other galleries which regularly present contemporary exhibitions such as Sofia City Gallery, National Gallery for Foreign arts and Irida gallery in Sofia, TED Gallery in Varna and The Mexican House in Plovdiv.

SOUTHERN: When we arrived at the Interspace centre in Sofia we found a scene familiar to any artist who has worked with computers. The two rooms were a hive of activity fuelled by a regular supply of strong black coffee. These offices housed the intensive activity of a core of artists who frequently double as technicians, Galia their project co-ordinator and a variety of people who drop in to use equipment, drink coffee and help out. This 24-hour activity supports not only the artist’s own work, but a steady stream of commercial projects which finance the existence of the centre in the absence of any external funding.

To an outsider the Bulgarian art scene seems to pivot around the activities of several key individuals and groups. To a certain extent in the same way as the art scene in the UK, each city having a handful of artists and curators who seem to be behind much of the local activity. Whilst installing "Urban Cycles" we were staying in a flat owned by the Bulgarian ICA in which their offices usually exist, and talks and presentations by artists are hosted throughout the year. It seemed to us that the amount of support from the artist community was similar to that found in the UK, with the inevitable benefits and problems that entails.

DIMITROVA:From the beginning Interspace had planned to develop the project as an international collaboration. We were interested in the diverse visual and conceptual perspectives of an international group of artists in relation to the specific public space of the Bulgarian National Palace of Culture. The experimental nature of the project and use of hi-technologies determined a long and sophisticated process of creation and preparation, in which we also wished to collaborate with an organisation and artists who have experience in that area.

Interspace had been introduced to Idea’s site-specific digital and video projects through our contact with Gary Peploe an artist working with IDEA who made presentations during "Videoarcheology" International Video Festival, organised by "HO Association for Contemporary Art" and Interspace Media Arts Festival "Project END".


SOUTHERN:All the artists involved have a common interest in urban site and digital installation. In June this year we made an initial visit to Sofia to meet and to explore the site. The NPC where the work was to be installed is a vast. Built in 1981 on the wishes of Lludmilla Zhivkova, daughter of the then communist leader this cultural palace contains 15 floors, 8 auditoriums and a five-storey foyer with a marble floor onto which our videos would be projected. A park with formal fountains extends several hundred metres in front of it. These large public and open spaces have the concrete optimism of 1970’s public galleries and libraries in the UK, but on a much bigger scale.

DIMITROVA:The choice of a public space over a traditional gallery was determined by the wish for a large-scale visual impact and to reach wider audience of both general public and cultural consumer. To put the project into an ‘official’ cultural space, into the public art context and outside of the artist run gallery.

The NPC is a unique space, its architecture and function were very appropriate for this project. The giant building was built to host diverse and prestigious cultural events however nowadays many commercial activities take place there. This typifies the current socio-cultural situation in Bulgaria where such institutions have no public support and must finance themselves. The monumental architecture typical of the Communist period both framed the large-scale projections and opposed the dynamically changing images, the various levels of the foyer interior allowing multiple perspectives on the projections.


DIMITROVA: The project presented the artists with a common platform for the creation and exhibition of individual works - multiple-screen video installation, integrated within the urban environment. Entering into a well-known public space, the visitors were drawn into a changed environment. Four juxtaposed video image projected onto the foyer floor created a visual illusion and spatial manipulation. The everyday flow of people coming into the NPC provoked participation in the work via a sensor system that triggered images as they walked.

SOUTHERN: The technical set up for an installation is usually seen as the main factor shaping the interaction. In using the same system on 10 consecutive days for ten different works Urban Cycles revealed that the interaction between artist, audience and site had more to do with content and context than with technical set up. The works became an investigation of the role of the audience in not only a publicly triggered installation, but also in the changing face of a public space.

As the audience tried to catch, to anticipate, to avoid these works they became creative participants, official intruders, unwanted guests, members of a faceless crowd, cumulative and creative numbers. The solidity of the architecture was challenged by Dourmana’s body laid bare, my own architectural addition of an extra floor, and the moving filmic video of both Myers and Terziev animating the solidity of the monumental. The artists played many roles: the covert intruder, the domestic performer, and the defender of the space.

In Krassimir Terziev ‘s work the audience’s movements assembled fragmented clips of the film Casablanca, Maria Berova’s cleaning lady aggressively cleaned up after visitors, taking care of the building, Anneke Petticans’ silhouetted figure wrote graffiti specific to the building onto the floor, leaving sentences half written when visitors approached. Gary Peploe’s fruit machine of Eastern and Western Icons and logo’s invited you to play serious games. In Nikolay Chakarov and Steve Symons work the audience played a cumulative part however for Nikki they were faceless ants colonising the space whilst for Symons each audience member and the cumulative order in which they entered the four trigger areas built up a ‘language genome’ unique to the paths taken through that specific space. These articulations of the role of audience also reflected on the role of the artist in a public space. As Jenna Collins invited the audience to walk into images of her home their interaction became an intrusion. Petko Dourmana’s image lay provocatively naked as if buried under the floor of the palace of culture, turning in pain as visitors walked over him. In my own work visitors revealed black and white snap shots of the shopping centre inevitably incorporated beneath the floor of the Palace of Culture, whilst Adele Myers four videos showed traffic flows through cities, as a path walked through the images became a journey through the traffic of international cities.


GALIA: Following the exhibition of this work it has become obvious through the interest of journalists, artists and critics that Urban Cycles made public media art approachable and attractive to a great number of people. According to the NPC over 10 days 20 000 people either consciously or incidentally viewed and participated in the creation and composition of the works. The project provoked mass media interest in public art events. Most journalists reviewed it as a sensation and qualified artists work as radical acts to current socio-cultural life NPC’s commercial activities.

Urban Cycles UK will take place in April 2001, when the Bulgarian and UK artists and Galia Dimitrova will take up a month long residency at IDEA to make new work for the Manchester site.


Interspace Media Art Center


Galina Dimitrova /Curator&Projects Coordinator