The following is an article I wrote and which appeared several weeks ago in Bulgarian-language publication Blister Magazine (no longer online, archive here). Even though the article was aimed at a local audience, I decided to publish it here in English because it does give a rare glimpse into the level that, unfortunately, contemporary art still has to be discussed at in this country.
It has been almost three years since the first students graduated from the then-newly formed digital arts programme at the National Academy of Arts (NHA) in Sofia. Several of these young colleagues have gone on to win prestigious international art awards, have taken part in exhibitions both in Bulgaria and abroad (Including Vienna, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Varna and a number of times in Sofia), and have collaborated with writers, musicians and dancers in performances. Two of the three nominees for this year’s Ikar awards for dance are interactive performances in Bulgaria that have been created by or with former students of the digital arts programme; Albena Baeva and Martin Penev. Only a few months earlier, both Baeva and Penev took part in this year’s Independent Theatre Festival ACT, both with a dance performance.
It is specifically these two performances that I would like to pay attention to here: Cadaver by Penev and dancer Stanislav Genadiev, and Azamen by Runabout Project, a collaborative project by Baeva with Petya Boyukova and dancers Alexander Mandzhukov and Sofia Georgieva.
Little has been written in Bulgarian professional critical literature about these two works, though a lot has been said off-record and (semi) publicly, most of which, however, so poor and inadequate that a first thorough analysis of these two works should be considered highly overdue.
Some have called Cadaver and Azamen “similar”, while others, especially on social networks, have gone as far as to accuse one author of “stealing” the ideas of the other. The absurdity of the very thought that ideas could be stolen is beyond this article, but I will make a strong argument as to why any discussion of these two works that remains at the level of calling them “similar” is inadequate. In a way it is like saying that any piece by Pina Bausch is “similar” to the Swan Lake for the mere fact that both feature at least one female dancer, or that Hockney’s landscapes are “similar” to those by van Ruysdeal or Titian simple because they are all landscapes done in paint.
Art criticism and art theory should be about being able to express analyses that go well beyond such superficialities. So far, no one has stepped up to the plate to do this for these two works. The fact that these works premiered literally within months from one another, and that they are such a remarkable change from what we are used to seeing in the Bulgarian art-world, makes this a much needed effort.
I have had the pleasure and honor of working with both Martin and Albena during and after their participation in the digital arts programme at the NHA. I have also seen both performances several times, both before, as well as at and after their premieres.
To me, both performances are outstanding works because of the extent to which they break ground for the local art scene. Much credit is due to the dancers involved, all three of whom have gone considerably beyond the safe grounds that many of their colleagues still seem to prefer.
Neither Albena, nor Martin, are the first to attempt to do interactive stage work in Bulgaria. Where such attempts have so far been met with an attitude of “I’m fine with us trying something interactive, as long as it does not involve me” from the performing artists (the above is a literal quote from an actor at the National Theater to the director’s suggestion that the play should feature interactive video projections), these two young colleagues managed to break through that, to find people who thought alike and who were not afraid to do things they and their immediate peers had never done before.
So what are the similarities and where do these two dance performances differ?
For those who have not yet seen these performances (and there is really no reason why you shouldn’t); Cadaver starts off from a reference to Alvin Lucier’s 1969 composition I Am Sitting in a Room in which the author records and re-records his own voice as he reads a text that describes his physical situation as well as the process of recording and re-recording that is taking place at the time of the performance, and its expected outcome. In Cadaver, Genadiev records his voice as he reads a text, which he then goes on to manipulate and modulate using his muscles.
In Azamen, the two dancers are in a dialogue with both the audience and themselves, as they record specific words and sounds, that are then modulated through their movements.
Any similarity between the two dance performances ends with the description that a “dancer records sound, which he then manipulates”.
Both works put the dancer’s body at the centre of the creation of sound. The process itself and the way uses it, are fundamentally different and it is precisely why these two works, especially in comparison to one another, are so interesting. Not only are the actual sounds that are recorded different, but also their meaning within the context of the works. The way the dancers manipulate the recorded sound and the effect this has on the type of sounds they create, the nature of the dance, as well as the relationship between the dancer, their movement and the sounds created, are all utterly different.
There are two fundamental differences between these two works.
As already mentioned, Cadaver conceptually refers to the work of Lucier. The performance should be understood conceptually as a single work of art, where performance, the recorded text and the interaction design all serve the concept of the art work. The recorded voice is manipulated and filtered to the point where no voice can be recognized and its recording becomes pure sound, that of the body.
In Azamen, the relationship between concept, interaction and performance is completely different. Understood as a continuation of previous work that Baeva and Boyukova have produced under the name of Runabout Project, Azamen should be understood as an instrument that is performed by two dancers. The dancers are part of the instrument and, simultaneously, they dance to the music that they themselves play. The concept of the work itself is sufficiently open, to enable the dancers to change the words that are recorded, to change the choreography accordingly and, by doing so, change the work itself at every performance. This approach serves the concept of this work as an instrument for 2 dancers.
The second difference between the works of Penev and Baeva is in the way the body interacts with the recorded sound.
in Cadaver muscle tension is translated into manipulation or modulation of a sound, irrespective of whether that muscle tension leads to any visibly different position or posture of the dancer. Said in an extremely simplified way: contracting or expanding certain muscles triggers or releases particular modifications of the sound that is played back. As a result, Genadiev’s movements and their meaning are mostly focussed inwards.
In Azamen it is the physical position and motion of particularly the two hands of the performers that modulate sounds. The change in sound is directly related to the amount of movement and to the differences in position of the body of the dancers, not to the amount of muscle tension that is involved in the movement. As a result, the movements of the dancers in Azamen are of a different nature than those of Genadiev in Cadaver. At moments, it appears as if the dancers are caught in a giant machine with hidden buttons and levers surrounding them, which they manipulate through their dance.
Having said all the above, I should also note that I do have criticism towards both works. For one, both works need stronger directing and, in a sense, a more developed dramaturgy. Even at a technological level, I believe both works are not fully developed. But all of this is peanuts, compared to what both artists (and their collaborators) have overcome! Besides, these weaknesses too can be overcome if we manage to take away a number of other hurdles that currently hold back the development of this type of performances in Bulgaria. I’ll explain what I mean in a second.
The works by Baeva and Penev should be considered in the light of current developments in contemporary art internationally. The topics, the approaches and decisions of both artists follow a tradition of how technology is used in the visual arts, music and on stage over the last century. Where these works differ from the work their colleagues abroad do is in scale, finances, and an environment that nurtures such young talent.
In Azamen for example we can clearly see the influence of the work of Michel Waisvisz, specifically his The Hands; an instrument he has worked on from 1984 up until his death in 2008. Baeva’s work develops in a direction that is also explored in works by, for example, Companie Linga in Switzerland and the Emmy-award-winning work by Imogen Heap. Influences on the work by Penev can be traced back, for example, to the work of Marco Donnaruma and others.
I have before written about how in Bulgaria it is still easier when doing a video exhibition, to get carpentry work for pedestals funded, then it is to get any financial support for necessary equipment like a video projector. The problem becomes even more alarming with technology-intensive work like the performances by Baeva and Penev.
The difference that a more nurturing environment makes becomes clear when we look at Linga’s performance entitled Re-mapping the body, which treats a different theme but uses similar technological approaches as those of Azamen. While Baeva by necessity uses DIY technology, Linga’s performance uses several dozen bio-medical instruments, each smaller than a box of cigarettes and each of which costs more than the entire Azamen production.
Of course this is not just about money. In an environment like Bulgaria’s, where a more serious analysis of work that is done, is completely missing, we cannot seriously expect anyone to have any desire to support new work. Or for others to spend months or even years working on the development of such works, when the comments they will receive are so superficial. If we cannot discuss and analyse works that are fully embedded in a contemporary, international practice, we will not be able to reform education, funding and other support systems that could help nurture the development of such works. And if we fail to do that, we will continue to fund the construction of ever more wooden pedestals as a form of contemporary art.
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This text was written for, and first appeared on Artup!, Media Art in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, a project by the Goethe Institute.
As our world becomes increasingly digital, the term digital art, when not properly understood, becomes a meaningless label that can be applied to ever-larger sections of the arts practice. So what does it mean for art to be digital?
The broadly accepted definition of digital art is that it includes any work of art that uses digital technology in at least one of three different ways. The first is when the ‘product’ itself is digital, as is for example the case with software art or net art. The second is when digital technologies are used as part of the process; when the artwork in question has been produced by or with the aid of digital technology. Examples would be the use of computer-aided design software or digitally-controlled 3D printers. Lastly, any work of art that treats the topic of digital technology and its impact on art and on society as a whole, is often included in a wider definition of digital art.
The problem with this definition is that, in today’s society, this would include all but the most traditional works of art as digital art. If the term is to continue to have any meaning, we should re-examine its definition in the light of technological and social developments. In order to do this, we’ll first take a step back and look at how new media, the predecessor of larger category of art that digital art belongs to (depending on the precise definition one uses), relates to analogue media.
In their 1999 book Remediation – Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin wrote:
We … argue that these new media are doing exactly what their predecessors have done: presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media. Digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media. (Remediation, pp 14-15)
In other words; new media first and foremost attempts to replace older media in a transparent fashion, trying not to emphasise the difference in media, but to present a similar experience. One example would be the replacement of traditional film with high-definition video in cinema halls. At the same time, by doing so, new media cannot help but change or modify the experience of the old media, thereby forcing the old media to redefine itself. Such remediation often occurs at multiple levels at once. Bolter and Grusin’s reading of Jeffrey Shaw’s The Legible City (1989) for example, is that of a remediation of both television and the book: “it makes television interactive, while making reading into a three-dimensional experience.” (Remediation, p 144)
Bolter and Grusin’s remediation points to an inheritance of ideas, concepts, attitudes and topics in new media and thus in digital art. Digital art, like all other forms of new media art, has indeed inherited many of its central concerns, ranging from the use of ideas or information as a medium, political and social critique, or an opposition to commodification of art, and an often anti-commercial aesthetics, to the conceptual art and fluxus movements of the 1960, which in turn built on the work of Marcel Duchamp, starting with his 1917 piece Fountain, and the Dada movement. In addition, digital art, as a time-based art-form, is also solidly rooted in the practices of experimental film and, by extension, of video-art. As we will see, this is for a very specific reason.
Inside and outside
Digital art articulates those familiar ideas and concerns in ways that are specific for digital media. Robert Moog, one of the inventors of the synthesizer, described this process in an interview for the film Modulation, as follows:
“At the beginning, I think everybody outside of the electronic music field thought that synthesizers were supposed to imitate traditional instruments. The people who were inside electronic music wanted to use the synthesizer to make completely new sounds. […] Nonetheless, people just made this assumption that synthesis was about imitation, I think to a certain extent they’re still making that assumption, although most musicians today gravitate towards the sounds that synthesizers are particularly good at.”
The value of bits
In the pre-digital, industrial age, companies and artists alike produced atoms that were intended to be shipped and sold. The limitations that atoms imposed, such as the difficulty involved in modeling and moving them, formed a large part of what defined the value, often not just financial but also artistic, of these products.
As we move into a digital world, value is no longer derived from atoms, but from what is stored in the bits. In a 1995 article entitled “Bits and Atoms” for Wired Magazine, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comments on the difficulty of that transition when he talks about his visit to an integrated-circuits manufacturer. During the sign-in process, he was asked about the value of the laptop he carried with him. Negroponty’s reply that it was worth “roughly US$1 to $2 million” was met with great disbelief. To the receptionist, the laptop was worth no more than the replacement value of its atoms, not the value of the information stored in its bits.
It is through this movement of value into bits that the question of what it means to be digital becomes inescapable to any digital art work. Whether we look at JODI’s out of control technology, or Robert Lazzarini’s 3D prints of computer-distorted everyday objects and even human skulls, digital art fundamentally questions our basic assumptions about this technology and the unspoken agreements that define our relationship with it. It is in this critique that the central concerns of digital art we mentioned earlier find a logical form.
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This site has not seen a lot of updates in the last year or so. That’s not been because nothing’s happened. Mostly I simply did not manage to free up the time required to write and prepare posts. I will try to post more frequently in the time ahead.
On May 31, we organized a screening of Rene Daalder’s brilliant documentary Here Is Always Somewhere Else about the life and work of the Dutch-American artist Bas Jan Ader.
The screening, which was part of our xfilm lectures series, was held at The Red House, Center for Culture and Debate in Sofia, a place that has given us a lot of support over the last year for Dorkbot Sofia as well as xfilm lectures.
Below is the trailer of the film.
After the screening, Bulgarian National Radio did an interview with yours truly about this screening and some of the other things that have kept me busy recently. The interview was broadcasted by the Alarma Punk Jazz programme and is in Bulgarian.
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Last week, we announced a call for proposals for the next Ignite Sofia evening. I am taking the opportunity to post the presentation I did in February this year for Ignite Sofia #1.
For those of you who don’t speak Bulgarian, below is a short re-cap in English of my presention that night. Below that, I’ve shared my original slides.
We had about a dozen wonderful presentations for the first Ignite Sofia event. You can find the videos (all in Bulgarian) on IgniteShow.
My presentation was based on 15 years of seeing all the different ways in which Bulgarians have been able to resist change in every aspect of society. Hence the title.
How to resist change
Or how to thoroughly botch up any hope of change.
In several easy steps.
Based on a real story.
All of the quotes below are taken from real-life situations that I have been in over the last 15 years in Bulgaria. Though some are universal, collectively they provide an understanding of Bulgarian resistance to change during what is generally referred to as the “transition period” — the last 21 years since the fall of the Communist regime. Where possible, I’ve added the specific context in which the remark was made.
Almost every day, I receive an invitation to join a Facebook cause “against” one thing or another.
It seems that Bulgarians just love to “reject” things. No arguments or counter-ideas required, positions are defined purely by the act of rejecting.
“That is not possible” / “This cannot happen”
There is nothing more encouraging to start a process of change than an outright claim that you are attempting to achieve the impossible. Let’s go for it!
“Nobody does that” or “You are insane”
It wouldn’t be a change if everyone did it. Sure, I might be insane, but it feels great to be insane. And guess what, normal people don’t cause change.
“What will others say”
(source: grandmothers and aunties)
Others consider themselves normal, which is why they don’t cause change. What can we expect them to say?
“That is not accepted here”
Of course it is not! If it was, we would be seeing a lot more change.
Changing the status quo is very much worth bothering with. In fact, there is hardly anything that is more worth the effort.
“That is dangerous”
Change is only dangerous for those who are scared by it or who have an interest in continueing the status quo.
“The law does not allow this”
There seems to be a persistent myth, specifically in Bulgarian administration, that laws need to define what you can do and how you should be doing the things you do.
You don’t have to be a member of the bar to see how that doesn’t work.
“There is an ordinance that prohibits this”
This is what I call Plan B for when the previous argument fails. The suggestion is that regulations can forbid what is allowed under law.
Logic turned on its head.
“That is a lot more work”
Work will be different. Probably your work will completely change. But more often then not, change ends up creating less and easier work.
“We can not be sure the new will be better than the old”
This argument came up in a context where the new could hardly be more broken than the old.
If all else fails, make sure you do the new thing the old way
If you want to take part in one of the upcoming Ignite Sofia events, send an email to ignitesofia at gmail do com.
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Bulgarian-language weekly cultural agenda Edna Sedmitsa v Sofia (One Week in Sofia) published a one-page interview with yours truly.
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I have been putting this off for many, many years. I kept promising myself “that one day I will sort out my website.” Well, that day has finally come!
This has taken months of preparations and has endured countless interruptions, but here it finally is!
A lot of the stuff that you will find on this site now, has never been available online. Some of it was available at some point, but had since disappeared. I have tried to bring back what I could. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll add more material, so be sure to check back regularly.
If you want to receive email notifications of new posts on the blog, you can subscribe below. The frequency will be fairly low and I promise to keep the content interesting.
I hope you enjoy the new site.