Inside the Eastern European Network
In 2020, Akademie Schloss Solitude’s Eastern European Network Exchange Programme has been extended and new partners from Bulgaria have joined the programme. The three initiatives from Sofia, Æther, Swimming Pool and Radar, along with the Akademie Schloss Solitude and the Goethe-Institut Bulgaria, have created these new connections to draw attention to the cultural and artistic production of Europe’s Eastern region and for mutual exchange. Each year, one artist will be invited for a three-month residency with the partners in Sofia and one – at Akademie Schloss Solitude. The Eastern European Network Exchange Programme hopes to help create lasting communication networks as well as boost the exchange of knowledge and experience between disciplines and regions. On this occasion we are keen to introduce the new partners in a series of short portraits and interviews. This time, independent curator and editor, Krzysztof Gutfrański talks to Alexander Manuiloff, dramaturge, writer, and founder of Radar Sofia – a contemporary writing platform and residency programme in the heart of Sofia. As part of the series Inside the Eastern European Network, we also would like to feature the People of Sofia.
After different phases of karaoke capitalist transformation, the Balkans and the Central-Eastern Europe entered the global art world. With mixed economic developments, these countries have had established quite distinctive, but very often peripheral art scenes. How would you briefly describe Bulgaria/Sofia in the last two decades? What are pros and cons, what goes beyond self-colonisation and how do you see the art residency model in this context?
Bulgaria is your future. Especially if you have worked in the independent art sector in the western part of Europe. If you move now to work in Sofia, and still think you can apply for project financing locally and live off it, then – really – welcome to your future. If you were at least a little bit surprised when Trump or Boris Johnson were elected, then, let me tell you – we had those guys maybe decades before they actually happened in your world. If the only crisis you remember is the financial one from 2008, then, you are blessed, you were born with good karma. In the last 20 years Eastern Europe has been probably one of the most rapidly changing places on the planet – even in comparison to China. The East is indeed a shapeshifter, but it is also, I think – a time-shifter: we are moving in several directions simultaneously and, besides, we are the living proof that time does not progress uninterruptedly from point A towards point B in a simple arrow, as it is described in the physics textbooks.
»We already have festivals, production companies and publishing houses. But when was the last time you were invited to a residency in Bulgaria?«
And what goes beyond self-colonisation (and self-consolation) is probably teleportation. Art residency model in this specific exchange context is sort of teleportation. How do you imagine you can feel after your first teleportation to somewhere? All your atoms, cells, bones, hair, limbs, organs have been meticulously transposed – exactly as they are – onto a new location, in an instant. You open your eyes again. You feel you are yourself, here too, but not quite. Well, that’s the feeling. I think this is the Zen moment of going to the European East now – it is so close to what you know and what you have been used to, but it isn’t. And this is where inspiration can strike.
How do you see this mobility in terms of neoliberal acceleration?
It can be very difficult. Many artists don’t find enough resources in their home countries for what they are doing and if they want to keep doing it – they may need to go to Singapore, for example, to get a development grant for the idea, then fly to Brussels for the rehearsal process and, finally, premiere at a festival in Hamburg. This is a weird form of global financing that is now possible and wasn’t always there. It involves a lot of time spent on writing applications and massive travelling. Not many can sustain the tempo needed for this way of art practice, nor everybody can adjust their lifestyles to that. The good thing in mobility is that artists, by definition, are curious people. Many creators like spending some of their time in trips to foreign places, discovering new contexts and forming new artistic partnerships. So, in this sense, a healthy dose of travelling supports the creative spirit in many people, I believe. It also helps seeing the “others” not as “them” but as part of “us”. It helps society see beyond the retrograde political nationalism (and xenophobia) that is on the rise in many countries now. This in itself is enough reason to value the residency places for foreign artists as an important part of our cultural achievements.
But there is one more imminent reason why we should keep forming transnational exchange programmes and it is because exactly the neoliberal economic model is constantly cutting the resources for smaller organisations who are supporting alternative, radical, and off-market creative formats and concepts. Many of these organisations will soon be in survival mode if they have not already closed down. They will realise they are in position to survive only if they manage to form pacts and partnerships with their counterparts from other countries. This is the only way the smaller players can become stronger.
You could have aimed at completely different formats, like a festival, a production company, a publishing house… Why did you choose the residency model for Radar Sofia?
We already have festivals, production companies and publishing houses. But when was the last time you were invited to a residency in Bulgaria? Often the problem is that everybody in the theatre circles here (but also in other countries) is production-oriented. There are many competitions, for example, for a theatre play in my country. People apparently expect that somehow, from somewhere a magical piece of art will appear, out of the blue, and they will give it a prize. But how will this marvellous piece of art be created? Nobody supports the process. I think this attitude might be a remnant of our communist past when officialdom was so ubiquitous and all-important. Many people still believe that culture is something that happens on the red carpet. While actually culture happens in your living room, in your kitchen, in your bedroom, everywhere where you feel cosy and where you are able to work. So that’s what we decided to do: to cut the red carpets, and buy a carpet for your room, where you will be accommodated in Sofia. In other words: to make exactly the opposite of what the policy of the Ministry of Culture has been focusing on for so long. And ironically enough, the Radar Sofia flat is located across the street from the building of the Ministry of Culture. From your windows you will be able to see them, but don’t worry – they will never see you.
»But there is one more imminent reason why we should keep forming transnational exchange programmes and it is because exactly the neoliberal economic model is constantly cutting the resources for smaller organisations who are supporting alternative, radical, and off-market creative formats and concepts.«
It reminds me about off-grid projects from Sankt Petersburg in the 1980s and elsewhere in the last years of the Soviet Bloc, when people hosted their galleries and other hybrid projects in their private apartments… The times have changed and your idea of »domesticating« or »inhabiting« theater takes to another dimension. How do you combine your own creative work while operating at Radar?
Actually these ›off-grid‹ galleries which you accommodate in your own flat have been one of the hypes in the USA over the recent years, while Russia is still building shiny and glossy shopping malls. After all, Tinbergen’s convergence theory might just not be that wrong.
But yes, for us in Radar Sofia, culture as a process should be domesticated and removed from any pedestal or, God forbid!, from the ›temple‹. We are not building a temple for culture, we are building a home for it.
But it is not only a conceptual or curatorial approach: it is the only thing we could do if we wanted to do something. The alternative and experimental creation in Bulgaria is literally pressed to the wall, we don’t have abundant resources for that, nor can we count on powerful sponsors, and we definitely can’t expect the market to immediately react positively to new forms and content. The only material asset in Eastern Europe, however, which can give it a competitive advantage over the West, is that the rents of immovable properties are significantly lower and also – that many people own their flats. That’s what we decided to use: the only thing we have – share our apartments and open them for guests. Again – it is not a castle, it is not a temple, it is a home.
»The only material asset in Eastern Europe, however, which can give it a competitive advantage over the West, is that the rents of immovable properties are significantly lower and also – that many people own their flats.«
As for my own artistic work – it is going on well, thanks, I keep creating new things, and I feel enriched by the opportunity to work for other people’s projects and careers through Radar Sofia. It is no longer only »me, me, me«. I feel this is a very healthy and mature stage of life, balanced and satisfying.
Where do the things that interest you in terms of alternative theater and performance take place in Bulgaria?
Sometimes they do happen in Radar. We have had a performance by our guest resident, the Changhai dissident Zhang Chien, we also had a concert by Ivo Dimchev here. We are working with independent theatre or gallery spaces such as Atelier Plastelin, Derida Stage, Aether, Swimming Pool, plus one very new one called The Station, also foreign cultural institutions with premises in Sofia such as Goethe-Institut and British Council and one state-owned but independently curated theatre for contemporary dance and performance called DNK. These are also places we inhabit – or sometimes invade – with co
ntent. And more is about to come.
What are your hopes to achieve through the cooperation with the Akademie or as part of the Eastern network?
We have already achieved something – if Akademie Schloss Solitude, which is also a castle, wants to become a partner with a ‘garage’ residency, then we have made a huge step forward in understanding what the fostering of artistic and curatorial process actually is and could be. I think that our residents through this network will have massively creative time in Sofia and we would like to put them in a situation where they will be able to build long-lasting relations with the country and with some of its artists. And if our guests decide to return again after that, this will be a big bravo! for everybody involved.