Vladiya Mihaylova in conversation with Krassimir Terziev

The Contradictory Economy of Images and Media

in: Between the Past That is About to Happen and the Future That has Already Been Iztok-Zapad Publishing Sofia 2015

V.M.: Many of your works one way or another are about Space. Take for instance the series of drawings as well as the video “A Message from Space in the Backyard”, 2008/9, or even your photos “When water, gas and electricity come from far away...”, 2011. A few years ago you named your solo show “Cosmopolis”. Where does this interest come from, in a time when the world is preparing for its Mars One mission?

I can add to this list the “Map of the Routes Between Worlds” (2010). My initial interest in the iconography of the cosmos actually comes from my feeling as a web user of the gradual penetration into a very Space-like space – the shift from human perspective (eye level) to the satellite view into the distance of the stratosphere, the scarcity of oxygen (the immateriality of the online experience), the absence of hard soil beneath one's feet (real virtuality) etc. I needed to acknowledge these new experiences with our inherited spatial attitudes and often taken for granted, at least since the times of Renaissance. The parallel augmented reality we reside in, enabled by image processing technologies transform us into some sort of amateur cosmonauts. I am interested in that paradoxical state we are in due to communication technologies, the virtualization of human experiences and the globalization (however much of a cliché the term has become). And more specifically, the state in which everything in this world seems intimately close, at arms-length, at a single screen click away, and yet they are out of reach, cosmically distant, and personal experience is irrelevant there. Looking into space to me is also like looking into the future and the past at the same time. It holds the image of overcoming the very boundaries of the known, of expansion, of conquering new worlds, unraveling the mysteries and rationally understandi8ng the universe – its dimensions are utopian.

And yet, from the present’s point of view, this is looking into the past, to the entire unrealized ideology around the euphoria of space race during the Cold War, to the blood-chilling discovery that compared to the dimensions and reality of space humans are but minor and helpless, and that the price of their presence beyond the Earth’s orbit is devastating.

V.M.: This is perhaps due to the interaction between realities that you work with – there are palms in the collage of the photo wallpaper, astronauts are lined up for a family shot, and so on. It seems pretty important to you to discuss these issues and to do so through the computer screen on the desk. Is that so?

Well, don’t we actually do most of the things in our everyday lives on the “computer on the desk”, as you so perfectly nailed it? This is precisely the point of view I am interested in as an artist – this “wooden”, noisy, often unkempt, and refusing to live up to any of our expectations object, the table, it rules the rhythm of our days, and therefore the ways we organize the world, and then, once again due to it, we feel more at liberty to organize the world, or the worlds we inhabit as we like, to hop from one galaxy to another with a click or a swipe or a slide. And again, as an artist, the role of user is the only one that seems to me achievable and authentic.

V.M.: It seems that to you the viewpoint of the user and artist are rather close. For instance, in your space-related works there are multiple references to the Apollo 11 photos of the 1969 Moon landing. On the other hand, it is apparent that part of them were built on the principles of “classical” still-life composition. Why is it so important to you to bring together these two types of imagery – the media and the “historic”?

As an artist I think that the role of the user is the only one that is achievable and authentic. I am interested in the socialization of technology, not in its code. In my series “Since water, gas and electricity come from afar…” I used scenes from the computer user’s everyday routine, who, as I mentioned earlier, to me has become an amateur astronaut by now. In these scenes the personal, private space (the desktop, the dinner table, the living space) mingle with the global, with the universe of information (the Apollo shots of the Moon walk). To visualize my attitude to the virtualization of the daily routine I needed to bring together, into a single plain, iconography of varying historical backgrounds. That’s what brought about the still life built on the principles of the Flemish masters of the 17th c, with an astronaut’s helmet suddenly appearing on the table, with the reflection of the Moon walking scene on it. This is the dual time-space inhabited by the network user, due to the global encyclopedic archives constantly updating online.

V.M.: There are images which to you function somewhat independently. Take, for instance, King Kong. He is present in many of your drawings and paintings – perched on the skyscraper or, multiplied, astride the National Assembly (the Party House in fact) in Sofia. What is your reason for using the same image across different works?

Since I first came across King Kong while I was working on “The Return of the Beast. 1933-2005”, this image has haunted me. There is something about the method of “artistic research” or at least in how I go about it, that leads to digging into heaps of data till the various figures crystalize and then start glowing with their own light, and contain complex relations to various narratives and meanings. What intrigued me with King Kong was that he’s a figure which keeps reappearing in the history of film over and over again, over several decades, while at time a character without cues of his own – quite unusual for a film character. But despite this lack, or due to ir, King Kong is an immensely expressive, visual figure which could be sculpted into all sorts of stories at meta level. His periodic reappearance turns him into or becomes reason for his turning into an iconic image. He is an enlarged image of our origin as otherness, which casts a monstrous shadow over the very heart of “modern civilization” – Manhattan. At the same time he is a cult character of American pop culture and so his appearance on top of the Party House, just as he sat on top of the Twin Towers or Empire State Building, gives rise to a new scene, a new story related to post-socialism, transition and so forth.

V.M.: What is the relation between the image you work with and the media – the tools you use? I refer to many of your works which openly place the viewer before contradictions – your self-portrait is drawn onto the screen of an old laptop with a dry needle (“Monument of the Time Elapsed”, 2014); the browser navigation tools are turned into site-specific work by direct “application” onto the wall of the gallery (“Space Enlargement Tool”, 2010) and many others.

Let me take this a step further back. I started my somewhat more conscious art practice after 1995, while still studying at the National Art Academy’s painting programme. Turbulent times, quite disorienting. At school and later at the academy, full of curiosity, with certain friends we did stuff in the spirit of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, alongside our purely academic tasks. In those days the place was ridden with this soft, unhistorical form of modernism which I had mastered to virtuosity. To kick-start away from this established state of affairs I started addressing actual events and real-life situations. Perhaps naively, I thought at the time that addressing in my works my own personal experiences of reality bore the sincerity and ethics I could not see in the vaster part of the inherited painting tradition. I have preserved this manner without whatsoever reflex in my work to date. Each time I start with an interest to some particular object, situation or event. I do actually have very few works which are purely documentary. During the process of working some structure or form always would emerge to distance me from pure documenting. Something that frivolously comes to mind now, the idea of Eisenstein’s montage as an internal combustion engine in which each explosion brought about by the collision of controversies fuels the story onwards. Many of my works are indeed born of the collision of controversies. And these controversies are often revealed at the level of various visual languages within a single plain.

V.M.: Is there any media within or through which you are most comfortable expressing yourself?

This is yet another contradiction I am not capable of resolving without due internal drama. On the one hand I seem to be passing from one media to another in my works, i.e. not identifying myself with any single media. On the other hand, problematizing the media as a universal category, as materiality, historic dynamics or structuring factor of personal perceptions and ideological attitudes comprises a substantial part of my work. So from this point of view, I am not looking for the comfort of the media within which I have lived and which my body is accustomed to (by this I mean painting), but am excited by the opportunities to broaden the options of any media’s operation, while not undermining its own nature or specifics. Or I seek for the revelation of a media’s specifics based on intermediality.

V.M.: In 2012 and 2013 you produced a few works related to the markets. I refer to not simply the large sign that read “God Bless the Market” mounted onto the façade of the now closed “Praga” cafeteria, but also to your performance “Rhythm-n-Crisis” on the underground station. I want to ask you if they are in any way related or if there was any specific reason for these works, besides the festivals they were presented within. The global financial crisis started with the collapse of the stock market in 2008, but the Occupy movement only started several years later. I wonder which of those your works are linked to, or perhaps to neither?

I would add at least one more work to these – “Markets Are…” (2013), the pulsating LED sign which claimed “markets are nervous” and was part of my “Cosmopolis” exhibition at the ICI-Sofia. This series of works is based on my resistance against that magical explanation of the world’s current state based solely on the logic of the market, imposed by the neoliberal shift worldwide. This explanation became particularly daunting and immaterial precisely following the banking collapse of 2008. Whatever social or cultural turbulences we would go through would invariably be presented as inevitable consequential logic of the market dynamics. Whatever alternative images of the world we would seek would then be brought down to earth by the neoliberal adepts with the “basic facts” that: “this is the way the market functions and the best we can do is by not intervening”. Explanations of this type make, on the one hand, reference to the almost divine origin of the market, and on the other, animate the abstraction which we call the market into a living, autonomous creature.

V.M.: Let me ask you something from afar. Your interest in how the markets function and the logic of neoliberalism are present in some of your other works as well, if not so apparently. Besides the “magical” and abstract mythologisation of the market there are processes of exchange flowing under the surface, incarnated in both our cultural circumstances and the specific economy of the images. Bulgaria for instance is not among the leading countries in these processes but they have had grave influence on culture relating to the restructuring of the nation-state. Here though they enter into complex collisions with inherited procedures established by the state of socialist production and power, which often itself leads to absurd and paradox. Would it be right to claim that some of your works deal with precisely these issues, albeit indirectly?

Yes, perhaps this is a hard to trace though visible thread indeed. I can think of a whole series of works which may be seen in this vein. “Along the Bulgarian Trail” (2003), for instance, is a video with excerpts from “western” feature films which have clichés about these strange people from Bulgaria and this particularly strange country they live in. Behind these plots there is a certain economy of images but what I have tried to do with their composition is turn it into yet a third thing – to study through my work how this economy interacts with the economy of seeking and establishing national identity which was essential to post-socialist Bulgarian reality. I could continue with my series of works around the extras in films. They interact with the world of cinema as a generator of fiction, but through the material economy of film production which has nothing to do with the polished screen characters but reveal the sophisticated macro and micro framework, including power games, exploitation, reality vs factitiousness, the production of phantasmagoria at national and global level. And if I have to go on, I would also consider “Once Place” (2004) and “Monumental” (2011) which focus on places of innocent experiences – children’s playgrounds, places for leisure and killing time. These spaces though turn out to be heavily ideologically laden, burdened with our socialist heritage, and so “hang” quite strangely in the reality of the neoliberal economy of the urban environment. Let me not go any further into tedious self-references. To summarize, the economy of the production and circulation of images which lies in the basis of my interests inevitably reveals complex collisions, as you said, between our socialist heritage, the neoliberal present and the various desires and notions of what should be, or what it could have been if… I don’t want to nor am I capable of simplifying or reducing the multifaceted character of the visual image. I would rather retain or emphasize the composite character of each figure I work on.

V.M.: Risking to slightly digress from the issues of art – in 2013 there were huge public protests against the government. Some of your latest drawings seem to refer to that. What was the essence of those events to you personally as citizen, but also as an artist?

To me these protests were different. For the first time I had the sense of belonging to a particular community, of expression and sharing a relationship with the participants without the intervention of the technology of power. I was impressed by the helplessness and futility of authorities to cope with the situation, to enter into some sort of productive dialogue with the discontented people. The incredible fencing around the national assembly spoke of one thing only – how terrified the authorities were of the unfamiliar crowds outside. This is reflected in the drawings you refer to. Phantasmagoria of power.

V.M.: I have always been intrigued by the moment of obsession in the very act of your work. This is not just about the way you apply images like King Kong, but also with notions which apparently are significant to you and “accumulate” a body of works around them. Do you have this feeling yourself and when does any topic (or problem) exhaust for you?

I never have the feeling that a problem I have had interest in has been exhausted. I may have had perhaps moments when I would feel the need to give myself a break from the obsessive poring into a particular, isolated problem, to turn away and broaden the perspective. Like in 2003-2008 when I was obsessed with getting to the bottom of the phenomenon of the extras in film, but at a certain point I halted that line of research so that I wouldn’t become “that artist with the extras”, and I left a lot of open ideas and plots which I hope someday will come out. I had for instance discovered a really interesting story. An extras casting agency from Germany had used Pentagon and NATO military bases to recruit Arab and Afghani emigrants to play “themselves” in simulations of real combat situations during training exercises of the troops before they’d be sent on the ground to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found this plot extremely interesting to follow up my series of works on extras because the idea of hiring masses of people to “play” their own ethnic and cultural identity, and to re-play the same traumatic experiences of witnesses and victims of military invasions they had escaped from, as a form of making a living in the countries they had fled to – this is monstrous but it is also quite telling of our entire contemporary situation, with technologies of war, the geopolitical attitudes to human beings, and technological simulations which relate to war, but equally to cinema and the investment in immersive virtual reality.

A lot less cruel but nonetheless similar was the recruitment of extras for the production of “Troy” which you mention – i.e. when they needed authentic Thracians the producers came to Bulgaria. But there was a lot of distortion, however curious, in that simulation needs “truthfulness” to become authentic simulation, as horrible as this sounds. How do you reflect this in your work?
Yes, this game of “plausibility” was my key interest in the narrative based on the production of “Troy”. They were recruiting people of plausible Mediterranean looks and unsurprisingly these were neither Greek, Macedonian, Serbian nor Turkish, but Bulgarian. The Turkish Ministry of Tourism was interested in offering Canakkale as the production’s filming site, which is the authentic spot of the city of Troy. But the producers opted for London, Malta and Mexico. The Turkish government offered sponsorship if at least the premiere of the film would be in Canakkale. The producers though opted for Berlin – the places where most of the excavated archaeological objects from Troy were shipped to and are exhibited. The culmination of this game of unacceptable realities and plausible fiction was the Trojan horse produced by the film’s designers, which the producers donated to Turkey after the end of filming. A dummy that was exhibited on the site of the original Troy in Canakkale, and by this legitimized alongside the real archaeological excavations as something just as remarkable or original.

And then there’s that other pivotal part of the same logic, the myth about cinema (the shining superstars, the potential opportunities etc), which plays a major role in luring these otherwise quite sensible young Bulgarians into undertaking a highly risky three-month trip to the Mexican desert to be extras on the film set. Of course they see nothing of the glimmer they’d imagined. Just the contrary, they face the most severe working conditions imaginable – 14 to 16-hour working days at 50 degrees’ heat, endless hours of waiting about, savage battle scenes between up to 1500 people without much of risk management on the set. Paradoxically these conditions to an extent have brought about the air of hyper-reality to which the extras were exposed during filming. It is hard to imagine how, despite the visibility of the construction on the set (the props, costumes, script), the participants in the battles get so carried away that they end up breaking their arms or legs, or getting injured. And instead of rubbing off a bit of the glam of the world of film with its divas, the trophies the extras take back home are photos they’d taken of each other on the set, clad in ancient Greek battle gear, amidst fortress wall props, burning ships and desert bushes.
And then the enigma – the dynamics of the masses of people, in which there is subjective experience and personal drama, but no leaders and followers, no close-ups and background.

V.M.: Your documentary “The Battle of Troy” was created in 2005, and then there were other works too, which were close to the idea, but then there was the installation “Movement in the Background” 2007/08 which directly refers to it. I realize that your works present different approaches and viewpoints to some original material, and yet – how would you describe the differences? What is in the film that cannot be presented spatially, and vise versa?

The film format is strictly coded. It’s got a timeframe, opening and closing credits, viewing focusses on a specific psychological space. To experience that the viewer must abandon one’s own body and submerge fully into the space on screen. The exhibition space on the other hand leaves sufficient room for navigation, it offers free movement for the body and eyes among objects, images and media of various order. constructing a storyline within physical space is a task of multiple variables, with flexible links between object and discourse, vectors of movement which construct different versions of the story. In the case of the series of works based on the extras in “Troy”, the original studies and accumulation of raw material revealed so many layers and possible approaches to the mater that could not have made it at all into the documentary, but I thought were worth noting. Which is why I extended my work along the same plot into diverse formats, the largest of which was my installation “Movement in the Background”.

V.M.: What did you find most interesting in the process of working and contemplating on this story of the Bulgarian extras in the “Troy” production?

There were a lot of things I had to cope with for the first time in this production, it was due to the very specifics of the project. For the first time I had to face the challenge of creating methods and principles over a lengthy period of research, of grappling through history and viewing it from many different angles. At first sight the story is really simple. Trivial, you might argue. Three hundred extras from a small country enter the gigantic film production world and led by various real or imaginary visions set on a journey to an exotic country to film battle scenes from a historic drama (Troy). But there are so many other storylines intertwined within this story, at micro and macro levels, that the choice of emphatic moments, of first, second and so forth plans in the plot, both in the documentary “The Battles of Troy” and the installation “Movement in the Background”, took a very long time and went through multiple versions. For instance, the idea of creating a group portrait of the extras, i.e. cinematographically portray a group without leading and supporting roles, but instead we meet a group of 30 people without allowing for domination or individualization of any of them, demanded a specific narration and composition technique. Then there was the issue of lack of experience in first-hand storytelling – the fact that nobody on the crew I was working with had ever been to the set in Mexico or had anything to do with the production, besides the fact that we worked with a year’s delay from the actual events, turned out to be of particular value rather than a shortcoming – the story was visualized only through the personal video and photo archives of the extras themselves, which according to me adds a very specific, but also authentic image and feel to it. The granulation, the imperfections of the amateur photos, the shaking handycam videos sequences bring so much character which I would refuse to bargain for the most perfect cameraman’s vision. I can go on with many other aspects of the production, but I’d rather sum up by saying that the circumstances I worked in then demanded of me to resolve to many experimental approaches and solutions.

V.M.: Do you think that marginal stories like this, made up of the “missing scenes” might become tools to override major epics, inarguably the size of “Troy”? How and for who do they function, bearing in mind their role in politics and values? This latter one refers just as much to “On the BG Track”, where I think you’re following the logic of the tons of familiar local anecdotes on the global non-presence of Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture.

We are so exposed to the rules and schemes of media performance that we automatically define a certain story as central and others as marginal. The story of the extras to me dramatizes the reality of a much more down to earth, exciting, authentic attitude than any of the Hollywood blockbuster fictions and cheap soaps. This is a drama completely opposite everything reality formats we’re being bombarded with constantly stand for, where people audition to be approved to be, to play themselves, or the image they’ve created about themselves, the image which coincides perfectly with the audiences’ expectation. Should we stop seeing or experiencing the so called “marginal” stories, we would fall prey to either the polished to perfection image that authorities and the media reproduce, or to conspiracy theories which deny whatsoever point of personal activity. Similarly “Missing scenes” helped me phantom up stuff the wrong way, to dare take seriously the “what if” that is in the basis of each plunge into the unknown.

V.M.: You have works which comprise wholesome, completed statements. They are short sentences with a full stop at the end, and surrounded by a body of works that gravitate, interpret, follow-up this original “sentence”. Like, for instance, “Fifty-fifty” (2014), “(Self)Tracking Shot” (2011), as well as your latest “Between Flashback and Deja-vu” (2015). They are all minimalistic and linked to the conditions preset by the technique, the media, the approach – the production of specified images with them is secondary to the process itself, to the technology of production. Is that so?

Hm, quite accurate, yes, it is. Project development based on a piece of research is a slow and exhausting process. The series with the extras for instance held my attention over a few years. Going through “space garbage” while making “Message from Space in the Backyard” (2009) took me almost a year. And while this method allows in-depth analysis, the side effect at least with me is that for a while it also exhausts the imagination, it turns the senses inwards onto the particular problem and tunes the mind into a particular frequency. After such a period I need to rest and that’s when the series of works appear which rely on rapid, precise targeting reaction. They follow accumulated observations and considerations on some issue, but they make quick cuts into specific points of access. “Fifty-fifty”, for instance, was a matter of 3 minutes, from the idea to the cut into the canvas. Wham! and there it was. The feeling of focusing on a game not all that simple (between surface and skeleton, between form and context, between two mirroring objects living in different spaces) within a single, quick and definitive movement brings enormous charge. “(Self)Tracking Shot” was very similar – a simple action behind which, or so I think, there is plenty of solid matter or contemplation on the moving image. In one case, as you say, there is the sentence which more often than not is a complex sentence really, with multitude subordinate clauses in which syntax is key. I don’t know if there is a full stop. In the other case there is a single word, and the effect is in the resonance of this word, in the entire cultural baggage of this one and only word.

V.M.: All of these works are somewhat dialectic – they reveal two plans at once. For example, in “Fifty-fifty” that of the empty space and of the frame, or otherwise – of the space of the image and of the conditions, the background, the scaffold of the environment. Why is this so important to you?

I can come up with two things in this respect. One is Bruno Latour’s statement in one of his lectures on the visual images, I can’t remember now the precise source or context, but he claimed that a single image has no cognitive value, that only the tracing image has a value of that sort. And the second is, not sure how substantial that is, but I grew up in socialist Bulgaria, I have been through five years of secondary art school where history and history of art were given a particular interpretation, and there were many blanks, as well as multiple mystifications. Then I studied at the academy, another five years, by then in the neoliberal market situation of complete chaos of values. So I tend to see dual images all around. I am intrigued by the oppositions and I see the frictions which can turn into a work of art.

V.M.: At the start of our conversation you emphasized how the utopias of the past and the future are now intertwined so I will venture to ask you a deliberately speculative and somewhat playful question – could the skeletons of man and dog (“Domestication. The First Five Thousand Years”, 2014) be found on the Moon or be excavated on Mars?

The title of my last one-man show which opened in Dobritch in early April this year was “Between the Past Which is About to Happen and the Future Which Already Was”. In the text to the exhibition I wrote that some time ago with relative certainty we could confirm the sequence of the three major tenses – past, followed by the present and future. The certainty has evaporated now with all the digital imagery flooding the world. In the 1990s one of Microsoft’s slogans read “Where do you want to go today?” Today this slogan would say “When do you want today to be?” So I really have the feeling that at present it all seems possible. On the one hand we are witnessing scenes and plots from distant, even pre-modern times, which mushroom within the most surprising circumstances. On the other, it is difficult to imagine a future beyond some retro utopia.

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