#AAH2015: Subversive Practices and Alternative Realities in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe since 1945

On April 11, 2015, at the Association of Art Historians annual conference, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, the panel “Subversive Practices and Imagined Realities in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe since 1945” examined the manner in which artists created their own parallel worlds, utopias, dystopias, and fantastic domains. Organized by myself, Amy Bryzgel, and Andrea Euringer-Bátorová, it consisted of five fantastic papers by speakers from a range of backgrounds and disciplines.

 Andrea Euringer-Batorova introduces the panel. Andrea Euringer-Batorova introduces the panel.

My co-chair of the session, Andrea Euringer-Bátorová (Researcher, Academy of Fine Art and Design, Bratislava) introduced the panel by discussing three types of subversive practices: direct confrontation with uniformed persons (police officers or guards), direct confrontation with symbols and signs of the communist regime, and confrontation with monuments, suggesting the use of Pierre Bourdieu as a conceptual frame for discussing the manner in which these artists position themselves. I also provided an introduction by providing examples of “alternative” or “parallel” realities developed by artists in Romania (Bureau of Melodramatic Research), Bulgaria (Vera Mlechevska and Dimitar Shopov) and Moldova (Mark Verlan and Pavel Braila), and considered the manner in which these projects perform presence (absent or desired), according the writings of Hans Gumbrecht.

Ruth Addison (International Publications Advisor, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow) discussed the lesser-known nonconformist artist and teacher Vasily Sitnikov, an outsider among the outsider: “Very little has been written about Sitnikov, despite the fact that every artist-contemporary seems to have a story about him.”

Katalin Cseh-Varga’s (research assistant and PhD candidate at the Graduate School of East and Southeast European Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University and lecturer at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna) paper explored the manner in which Hungarian artists used the fake, the pseudo, and fiction to hold a mirror against the “ ‘falsifying propaganda museum’ and create their own possibilities for autonomous action.” The work of these artists operates in the interstices between the real and the fake, the original and the copy.

Kristóf Nagy (postgraduate student, Courtauld Institute of Art) discussed another artist/political activist who was on the margins of the margins, György Krassó, probing the question: were Krassó’s actions unable to “achieve their political goals because they used an artistic expression,” or, were they “transformed to art because they were not successful politically and were not recognized as political acts?”

Micha Braun’s (PhD in Theatre Studies, University of Leipzig) paper, Practices of Repetition and Imitation in Eastern European Performative Arts in the 1970s and ’80s, examined the work of Russian and Polish action artist groups, such as Gnezdo and Orange Alternative, viewing it through the lens of Tadeusz Kantor’s idea that one has to “repeat reality to get in contact with it.”

 bojan baca presents his paper on Port berane bojan baca presents his paper on Port berane

Finally, Bojan Baća (PhD candidate in Sociology, York University, Toronto) presented his research and analysis of the protests (both physical and visual) organized by the inhabitants of Berane, a small town in northern Montenegro, against the regional waste disposal landfill that was polluting their town. In their attempt to be heard, they made themselves seen, by blockading the dump and creating photoshopped images of Port Berane, a fictional and beautiful town that provided an alternative to the current reality.

We were all pleased that contemporary art from Eastern Europe had substantial representation at AAH this year, as the day before our panel, Klara Kemp-Welch and Beata Hock hosted a panel entitled “After the Great War/After the Cold War. Nations, Identities and Art Histories in Central Europe.” Both panels were well-attended by those with a keen interest in contemporary art from Eastern Europe. Some had traveled from as far away as Los Angeles to attend these sessions!

 the alternative practices and subversive realities panel, left to right: kristof Nagy, bojan baca, katalin cseh-varga, ruth addison, amy bryzgel, andrea euringer-batorova, micha braun. the alternative practices and subversive realities panel, left to right: kristof Nagy, bojan baca, katalin cseh-varga, ruth addison, amy bryzgel, andrea euringer-batorova, micha braun.

I am pleased to announce that I hope to carry the baton by chairing a session at the Association of Art Historians annual conference in 2016 in Edinburgh, entitled “Artistic Re-enactments as Vehicles of Cultural Transfer in Eastern European Performance Art, 1960-present.” Please submit an abstract and join me in Edinburgh in April 2016!

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Tanja Ostojic, Misplaced Women, and Director’s Cut

 Fabia Brustia at Tanja Ostojic's Misplaced Women? workshop. Photo by filip barche Fabia Brustia at Tanja Ostojic’s Misplaced Women? workshop. Photo by filip barche

As I mentioned in a previous post, feminist performance artist Tanja Ostojic joined us here in Aberdeen for a few days at the end of March and beginning of April. On April 1, 2015, she led a workshop for students and faculty at the University of Aberdeen and the Robert Gordon University on Misplaced Women? She then invited participants to do the delegated performance themselves.

You can read more about the workshop, and some of the fabulous contributions by participants, on the Misplaced Women? website:

Fabia Brustia’s thoughts on the performance

Marta Nitecka Barche’s thoughts on the performance

Later that evening, I interviewed Tanja for the Director’s Cut, a series developed and run by Professor Alan Marcus in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen. You can even watch the interview online, by following the link (scroll down). It is also available here.

 Amy Bryzgel interviews Tanja Ostojic on the Director's Cut, University of Aberdeen, April 1, 2015, King's College Conference Centre. Photo by Brian Stewart. Amy Bryzgel interviews Tanja Ostojic on the Director’s Cut, University of Aberdeen, April 1, 2015, King’s College Conference Centre. Photo by Brian Stewart.  Interviewing tanja ostojic to a packed house at director's cut. photo by brian stewart. Interviewing tanja ostojic to a packed house at director’s cut. photo by brian stewart.

Both events were a fabulous success, the participants in the workshop were fully engaged, and the Director’s Cut was packed, and the audience asked a lot of interesting and challenging questions. I’ve posted a few pictures here but more can be found on the Misplaced Women? site, where you can also read my full description of the workshop.

Aberdeen is very much a migrant city, what with both the oil industry and two universities. Consequently, the Misplaced Women? delegated performance has a lot of resonance for people here, not to mention a special space on the landscape of Aberdeen. We hope to invite Tanja back to Aberdeen someday, but for now, her presence lives on as we revisit these performances!

 Tanja ostojic, Fabia brustia and Marta Barche at the workshop at the university of Aberdeen. Photo by filip Barche Tanja ostojic, Fabia brustia and Marta Barche at the workshop at the university of Aberdeen. Photo by filip Barche

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CFP: Artistic Re-enactments as Vehicles of Cultural Transfer in Eastern European Performance Art, 1960–present

I am pleased to announce that I will be chairing a session at next year’s Association of Art Historians annual conference, and I would welcome your proposals for a paper on artistic re-enactments in the context of performance art in Eastern Europe.

CFP: Artistic Re-enactments as Vehicles of Cultural Transfer in Eastern European Performance Art, 1960–present

Association of Art Historians (AAH) Annual Conference, University of Edinburgh, 7-9 April 2016

Deadline for abstracts: 9 November 2015

Convenor: Amy Bryzgel, University of Aberdeen, a.bryzgel@abdn.ac.uk

Description: The re-enactment of artistic performances and actions is a topic that has garnered much attention in recent years, most notably catalogued in Amelia Jones’ and Adrian Heathfield’s substantial publication Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History (2012). Given the fact that, in many cases, artistic transfer from one generation to the next did not occur in the traditional manner – through the academies – in Eastern Europe, re-enactments of artistic performance can function, in the region, as a witness to the forgotten past, functioning as a vehicle of cultural memory. Additionally, it can facilitate the transfer of ideas, history and practice from one generation to the next.

This panel invites papers that discuss artistic re-enactments of performances from across the former communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe in recent artistic practice. The papers in the panel should interrogate some of the following questions: What are the various functions of artistic re-enactments of performances in Eastern Europe? How do these functions compare with current understandings of re-enactment in the West? How can re-enactments be used to access a lost or inaccessible history (such as performance art in Eastern Europe)? Also welcome are papers that consider revisiting culturally relevant or historically significant places by artists or within the context of artistic re-enactments.

Please download the proposal form at http://www.aah.org.uk/annual-conference/sessions2016/session7 and use the template to submit your abstract of no more than 250 words to Amy Bryzgel: a.bryzgel@abdn.ac.uk by November 9, 2015. Please follow the guidelines on the form.

The proposal form provides details of the conference fees. Please note that as this panel will take place as part of the annual conference of the Association of Art Historians, no funding is available for travel or accommodation. All speakers are self-funded, and are also responsible for the conference fees. Members of AAH receive a discount on the conference fees.

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Tanja Ostojic in Aberdeen!

Next week promises to be an exciting one for those of us in Aberdeen: Tanja Ostojic will be here with us on April 1st (no, this is not an April Fool’s joke!), to give a masterclass to students (and interested faculty!), and be interviewed on Director’s Cut in the evening. Rather than repeat myself, I can point readers to my previous post about Tanja’s work on this blog, as well as a recent blog post that I put together with my PhD student, Jasmina Zaloznik, where we discuss her work from various angles –

For those in Aberdeen, Tanja’s workshop will be an interactive one, where she will demonstrate her Misplaced Women? performance and then get the participants to try it out for themselves. Since this is a delegated performance, it can be done by those other than the artist, following instructions. The workshop will take place at the University of Aberdeen in Macrobert 27, from 10-11:30 AM.

For me personally, I am very excited about the Director’s Cut. As readers of this website know, I have spent the majority of the past several years interviewing artists. For Director’s Cut, I will get to do this publicly, in front of a live audience – with Tanja as my interviewee. So, this will not only give attendees insight into the artist’s work, but will also provide a glimpse into my research methods. For those in Aberdeen, the event is free, but you need to book a place. For those not in Aberdeen, fear not – the event will be recorded and placed on the Director’s Cut website, and I will post the link here when it is ready.

And don’t forget, I will make my performance art debut at the Aberdeen Art Gallery this Friday, March 27, at their After Hours event, together with several of my colleagues from Scandinavian Studies and Music. This event is also free, requires no booking, but is for over 18’s only.

What an exciting time the next seven days promises to be!

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Contemporancient: Performing the Past

Performing the East has kind of been on hiatus for the past few months, but that doesn’t mean that performance wasn’t happening! A lot of interesting things are currently brewing. I spent much of January and February finalizing some publications and grants for interesting new projects, and putting together some exciting events in Aberdeen, one of which I’d like to tell you about in this post…

In October of last year, the performance researcher became the performer. For the first time since beginning my research on performance art, I engaged in the practice myself. I applied to a call for participation in a project by Lisa Collinson at the University of Aberdeen entitled “Artists, Academics and Ancient Texts” (AAAT). Lisa is a colleague in Scandinavian Studies, a topic that I have amateur interest in, but little practical knowledge of. Nevertheless, Lisa’s project was aimed academics willing to participate, not only those with knowledge of ancient texts. To be sure, my research couldn’t be further from the so-called “ancient,” insofar as I deal with living artists creating work right here and now. By agreeing to participate in this program, I was agreeing to become one of those artists myself!

AAAT took place in Glasgow, and involved academics from a range of backgrounds – history, Scandinavian studies, music, and art history. Prior to our departure to the big city, colleagues at the University of Aberdeen who were participating expressed great trepidation about it (myself included). None of us had ever performed in this manner, and none of us knew what to expect. Nevertheless, the fact that we had all signed up meant that we were all willing to engage in a bit of risk, and dare to do that which we had never done before.

The workshop was facilitated by Lisa and a contemporary performance artist, Ruth Barker. The two made us feel immediately comfortable in this scary new experience, and they had designed a series of activities that built up to the task that all of us were fearing the most – creating a performance. Lisa provided a workbook with a series of “ancient texts” and we were asked to look through them and choose one phrase, line or even word with which we could engage and develop a short one-minute performance, together with a partner. The results, if I do say so myself, were rather impressive, and eventually we built up to longer performances that we presented individually. In order to discuss and develop the performances, we used a method of giving feedback called the Critical Response Process (Liz Lerman) (CRP), which uses open-ended questions to enable the performer reflect on what they have presented, without the negativity that can be associated with “criticism.”

One month after the workshop, we presented our performances publicly for the first time, in two separate sessions, one at the art space “Seventeen” in Aberdeen (17 Belmont Street), and one session at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts. Now, we are taking our show on the road and some of the participants will be presenting their performances on March 27, 2015 at the Aberdeen Art Gallery, during their After Hours Event: Extreme Makeover. This is the final After Hours event that the Art Gallery will host before closing its doors for 2.5 years for a massive renovation project. The entire gallery will be empty – including the café and giftshop – and a range of activities will take place in the empty galleries, before the blank walls. In many ways it is fitting that Contemporancient will feature in this event. Part of the original impetus of the development of performance art was to take art off of the walls and out of the stale spaces of the gallery, to create live works of art that would be more thoroughly engaging than a sedentary two-dimensional image. Whether or not our performances do that remains to be seen, but we hope that people will come along and support us in our attempt at transforming ourselves from academics to performers.

 Aberdeen Art Galllery After Hours: Extreme Makeover  Friday, March 27, 6:30-10 - over 18s only Aberdeen Art Galllery After Hours: Extreme Makeover Friday, March 27, 6:30-10 – over 18s only

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PhD Scholarship: Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Eastern Europe since the 1960s

Interested in contemporary art in Eastern Europe? Want to pursue a PhD on a related topic? Interested in coming to Aberdeen to do so? Please see the announcement of a new PhD Scholarship at the University of Aberdeen for candidates prepared to start their studies in October 2015. Deadline is April 30, 2015!

PhD Scholarship: Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Eastern Europe since the 1960s – University of Aberdeen

Elphinstone PhD Scholarship:

A number of Elphinstone PhD Scholarships are available across the arts, humanities and social sciences at the University of Aberdeen, linked to specific, individual research projects.  These Scholarships cover the entirety of tuition fees for a PhD student of any nationality commencing full-time study in October 2015, for the three-year duration of their studies. One Elphinstone Scholarship is available for a PhD on a topic related to “Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Eastern Europe since the 1960s” (description below).


PhD Topic: Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Eastern Europe since the 1960s

Supervisor: Dr. Amy Bryzgel

This project aims to examine the phenomenon of participatory and socially engaged art in the specific socio-political context of Eastern Europe since the 1960s. Projects may focus on any area of the former communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern or Southern Europe, including single-country case studies or cross-country comparisons. In a region of the world that had as its ideological aim, at least in theory, the building of communism, with collective self-management and socially inclusive policies, what was the function of socially engaged artistic practices, which aimed to bring communities together in an ameliorative capacity, in this environment? How did these activities parallel or diverge from the aims of the state? Did participatory art succeed in creating a collective environment that socialism was aiming to build? This project will build on foundational studies by Miwon Kwom and Claire Bishop and seek to understand the particular function of participatory and socially engaged art in the unique political environment of state-sponsored socialism.

For more information, please contact Dr. Bryzgel (a.bryzgel@abdn.ac.uk). Proposals should be no more than 2,000 words, and include a discussion of Aims and Objectives, Research Questions, Research Context, Methodology and Critical Approach. 

Possible research Topics:

Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Communist Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1960-1989

Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in the former Yugoslavia

Participatory and Socially Engaged Art in Eastern Europe since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Other topics within the main subject area are also welcome; please inquire with Dr. Bryzgel.

Selection will be made on the basis of academic merit. Individuals with a strong research background in the field of Eastern European contemporary art and/or performance art, from either an art history or visual culture background, are encouraged to apply. Applicants should have the necessary language skills needed to undertake the proposed research, and should indicate potential funding sources for travel to conduct field research abroad if it is necessary to the proposed project.



How to Apply:

To apply for an Elphinstone PhD Scholarship, you should apply for a PhD online stating:

‘Elphinstone PhD Scholarship’ in the Intended Source of Funding section

The name of the lead supervisor (Amy Bryzgel) in the Name of Proposed Supervisor section

The title of the specific research project in the Outline Summary section

Candidates should simultaneously register their desire to be considered by emailing the Graduate School Administrator, Ann Marie Johnston, at a.m.johnston@abdn.ac.uk

Deadline for submission of applications: Thursday 30th April 2015.

 Participatory Performance by serbian artist branko miliskovic - a potential object of study for your phd! Participatory Performance by serbian artist branko miliskovic – a potential object of study for your phd!

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Performing the East in Texas! #aseees14

 Enjoying the Tex-Mex in San Antonio, in between sessions at ASEEES Enjoying the Tex-Mex in San Antonio, in between sessions at ASEEES


For a few short days in late November, a group of Slavists gathered in San Antonio, Texas, just a few blocks from the Alamo, to discuss their latest research on politics, history, religion, and even art in Eastern Europe and Russia. The occasion was the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies’ annual conference (#aseees14), which takes place in a different city each year – last year it was in Boston, and next year it will be in Philadelphia. But this year, we all went to Texas to enjoy the good food and mild climate, while focusing on a region of the world that couldn’t seem further from San Antonio.

Ksenya Gurshtein put together a two-part panel on Conceptual Art in Eastern Europe and Russia that I was happy to be part of. It was not the only panel on art, which is really something. I have been attending this conference for the past six years, and each year there is an increase in numbers of panels relating to art history and visual culture, which is of course great for our field. The first part of the conceptual art panel took place on Saturday afternoon, November 22, and featured talks about Moscow Conceptualist artists and the contemporary performance artist Anton Litvin. Adrian Barr (Winona State University) presented his work on Moscow Conceptualism, focusing on the manner in which artists such as Igor Makarevich, Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov explore the notion of the Soviet past as a loss or absence, and attempt to reconcile the stagnation of the 1970s with the utopian dreams of Soviet socialism. Michelle Maydanchik, Robert E. Keiter ’57 Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Art at Amherst College, presented a discussion of work by Kabakov and Komar and Melamid, artists whose careers span the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and who have worked both in the East and in the West. Maydanchik discussed the manner in which these three artists dealt with the transition from communism to capitalism, Soviet ideology to Western institutionalism, when they emigrated from East to West in the 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, she demonstrated both the continuities and dissonances between those two environments and the impact on the artists in their practice. Finally, Alexis Zimberg, a PhD student at the University of Toronto presented her analysis of recent work by Anton Litvin, an active yet relatively less-discussed (in the literature) performance artist working in Russia nowadays. Zimberg explored the manner in which the artist’s work bridges both art and activism, perhaps operating in the gap between the two.

Bright and early on Sunday morning, November 23, at 8AM, we reconvened to discuss contemporary art in Central and Eastern Europe. Ksenya Gurshtein (lecturer at University of Virginia) presented an interesting paper on artistic projects and their relation to the concept of utopia, and raised the question of whether this remains a relevant frame through which to view work by artists from communist Eastern Europe. Klara Kemp-Welch (Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art) presented a prototype of a chapter from the book that she is working on, entitled “When Archives become Books… Conceptualism and Publishing in East-Central Europe – Then and Now,” a nod to Harold Szneeman’s 1969 landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form.” She examined projects by artists from the communist and post-communist periods, contrasting projects such as Andrzej Kostolowski and Jaroslaw Kozlowski’s NET with recent publications that function as compilations of archives by KwieKulik and ArtPool, demonstrating the self-management and institutional independence that exists now as it did then, among artists. Finally, I gave a talk that explored work by artists from the former Yugoslavia, some whose work spans the socialist and post-socialist periods (Dalibor Martinis, Rasa Todosijevic) and others who began working after the breakup of Yugoslavia (Vladimir Nikolic, Sinisa Labrovic), looking at both changes and continuities in their work, and themes and subjects that were of interest to artists of both generations.

This year’s ASEEES conference was focused on the turning point of 1989 in relation to Eastern Europe and Russia, on this twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, and the papers in this two-part panel examined a range of issues relevant to artists during the communist and post-communist periods. While 1989 remains a significant date for artists in the region, one thing that the research of these scholars demonstrated is that when examining the “before and after” periods in the region, there is evidence of both change and continuity. While the tendency has always been to see the two “periods” in terms of radical difference and rupture with the past, it is clear that while some things have changed, others didn’t. One continuity between then and now is the struggle for existence that artists in the modern period have always faced. While in the past, artists in the East had state support under socialism, they often struggled for the freedom to create what they wanted in the manner they wanted to, and exhibit it without constraints. Nowadays, they may have the creative freedom they long desired, but their struggle for survival as artists in the neo-liberal capitalist system nevertheless remains.

 The Alamo, in San Antonio, TX The Alamo, in San Antonio, TX

Many of the scholars at ASEEES were so stimulated by this year’s presentations that they are already talking about what panels to put together for next year. So, hopefully we will see you all in Philadelphia in 2015!

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John Cage may have made 4 minutes and 33 seconds famous, with his iconic piece Silence (1952), but these days, it is 6 minutes and 40 seconds that is the time to beat – the format of the widely popular Pecha Kucha talk. Tonight, in Aberdeen, I’m giving my first Pecha Kucha talk, about my research. It is certainly a different type of presentation – I am used to giving timed talks, but never quite this short, and never quite this rigid. As most of you will know, in a Pecha Kucha talk, you present 20 slides that are on the screen for 20 seconds each; the presentation moves automatically, whether you are ready for it or not. In many ways it is much like a piece of performance art – one has to have a plan (or a score, like Kaprow), but be flexible within that plan (and allow for flexibility), because you might talk faster or slower than anticipated, and of course the audience might react in ways you didn’t expect.

The other challenge of the Pecha Kucha talk, at least when condensing one’s academic research down to a 6-minute spiel, is the risk of over-simplification. So, instead of trying to focus on the intricacies of my research, I tried to explain the process of doing my research, which I think is somewhat different from the way that people usually think academics work (interviewing artists, rather than just reading about them), and also make connections with the local context. I do this by introducing my talk with a discussion of Paul Neagu’s Going Tornado performance, which I wrote about earlier on this blog, and which actually took place in Aberdeen. I’ve also discussed the significance of the documentation of the performance in another blog that I just started contributing to, the George Washington Wilson Centre for Visual Culture blog, at the University of Aberdeen.

I think that eventually the Pecha Kucha talks will be available on the Pecha Kucha website, so then you’ll be able to hear my performance, and not just read about it!

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Performing the Global: East European Art in Lublin

At the end of October, I had the great pleasure and honor of participating in a conference organized by Piotr Piotrowski, hosted by the Galeria Labirynt in Lublin, and generously funded by the City of Lublin and the Polish Ministry of Culture: “East European Art Seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present.” Over the course of a long weekend, a group of scholars discussed issues related the position of East European art, disrupting the normative binaries of East and West, and presented their latest research in the field. It was a fantastic and rich event, and as the talks were all recorded, I believe they will be available online at some point. So, watch this space.

I thought it was fantastic that the conference took place in Lublin – not the capital of Poland, Warsaw – since one of the issues we were addressing in the conference was that of center and periphery. One of the participants, being so impressed with both the city and gallery’s impeccable hospitality, declared Lublin the “new Berlin.” So, definitely watch this space!

Two themes seemed to emerge from the conference. One, which was evident from the papers presented, were the myriad connections, collaborations, exchanges, and cross-pollinations of art that occurred between East and West during the Cold War. It was clear from these presentations that the Iron Curtain was not even porous, but in some instances inconsequential – as artists found ways to create, grow and interact across this boundary. That is not to deny the great difficulties faced by artists and citizens alike under the various communist and socialist regimes across the region, it is just to say that many artists found ways to act as if these barriers did not exist.

   Mariusz Tarkawian captures some significant moments of dialogue at the conference   Mariusz Tarkawian captures some significant moments of dialogue at the conference

The other theme that continued to be revisited was the question – which was raised several times during the event – of precisely who can write the history of Eastern European (Central and Eastern European, East-Central European, etc.) art. As an American art historian who has spent three years living in Poland, five years living in Latvia, has traveled significantly across the region, and speaks several of its languages, this question was particularly pertinent to me. I was relieved to hear that most present – and the vast majority of those present were from the region, with only a few exceptions – agreed that this topic is open to anyone, so long as they work accurately and correctly. I have always found the question of whether a Westerner has the right to write the history of the East peculiar, but of course I understand where it comes from. While on the one hand, most medievalists (can I boldly say “all”) never lived through the Middle Ages, and no one questions whether an Eastern European has the right to write about Michelangelo or the Italian Renaissance, this question has arisen because of some unfortunate scholarship that came out in the 1990s, immediately following the opening up of the region to the West.

While on the one hand, as a scholar, I believe firmly in thorough academic rigour, and would never defend sloppy work, on the other hand, I know from experience how hard it is to get the proper materials and information to write the story accurately and correctly. Even with all of the long, hard, in depth work I have done in the field, I have gotten it wrong sometimes. As much of this history (of experimental art) is still an oral history (being unofficial, it wasn’t often recorded or written down, and exists in the memories of those who were there to witness it) it often occurs that facts get mixed up, as human beings are flawed, and memory fails. I have often witnessed several locals discussing events that occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and even they cannot agree. So, if they don’t have an accurate or authoritative picture, how can we (the outsiders)?

I think the answer to this question is to keep working. As a lecturer, I try to share as much of the interesting material that I encounter on my students, so that they will take an interest and begin researching in these areas. Many of my students are from Eastern Europe, so they will have the languages to do original research. Publications help to get the material out, and, as Piotr Piotrowski has argued, it should always be translated, so that others can have access to these local histories. Finally, as scholars we have to keep digging, keep asking questions, keep pursuing these histories, because as they slip further and further into the past, they run the risk of being eternally forgotten. The papers presented at “East European Art seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present” in Lublin demonstrate that research in this field is alive and well, and these stories will be told.

  As a lovely surprise, artist    Mariusz Tarkawian made drawings throughout the conference, and captured some significant moments of discussion.   As a lovely surprise, artist  Mariusz Tarkawian made drawings throughout the conference, and captured some significant moments of discussion.

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At the end of Europe, and the end of my research: Bulgaria

In some ways, I felt like I started my trip to Bulgaria before I arrived. A few weeks before my trip, I spoke with Boryana Rossa, a visual and performance artist from Bulgaria who is currently an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University. Not only did she speak to me about my work, but she also helped me out with contacts in Sofia. The purpose of my trip was two-fold: firstly, I was going there as per usual, to meet with artists and look for materials for my book. But I was also invited to speak at the Sofia Queer Forum, whose topic this year, Manifestations of the Personal, was focused on gender. So, I had the opportunity to present the beginnings of a draft for that chapter of my book. [Yes, it is true, I have started writing it!]

 Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

Bulgaria is one of those places that art historians seem to have forgotten. It isn’t included in Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, for example, most likely because it doesn’t really have strong avant-garde or neo-avant-garde traditions to speak of. Bulgaria’s Eastern neighbor, Romania, seems to have received a lot of attention in recent years, but I have to admit that I knew very little about the scene in Buglaria before I went there.

My first day in Sofia was jam-packed. I had contacted Nedko Solakov, perhaps one of the best-known Bulgarian artists, weeks in advance of my trip. I was impressed by how quickly he replied, and was happy to have that 10AM meeting set up with him in my calendar for weeks before my arrival. The taxi ride out to his studio was somewhat chaotic. Once again, I had a very poor Google-map print-out of his street, one that would help no one, really, and the taxi driver just couldn’t find it. I started to worry when he began pulling over and asking pedestrians if they had heard of the street, and no one had, no one knew where it was (surprising, since we were in the neighborhood, and were only off by a few streets). I wanted to say “This is where Nedko Solakov, the famous artist, has studio!” but I figured that wouldn’t have helped much. In the end – as always – we got there, and only a few minutes late at that.

Nedko is not really a performance artist, he is really more well-known for his drawings – which he usually does spontaneously, on the walls of museums and galleries – and installations. He is a very prolific artist, and I took care to spend a good few hours going over his website, clicking on each and every work of art, reading the descriptions, before we met. I am glad I did. Not only did he seem pleased that I knew about his work, but I had later heard that he has little patience for reporters or art historians who don’t do their homework. So, if you are reading this and you plan to interview Nedko: study his website (and, of course, the books and catalogues of his work). Even though Nedko is not a performer per se, I find his drawing very much performative (and I am not the only one), and he also has some pieces that are indeed works of performance or action art – either works that he does himself, or that he directs others to do. Furthermore, Nedko was involved in a group called The City, which was a very important experimental art group active in Sofia in the late-1980s and early 1990s. What was fun, though, was that in speaking with Nedko about his work, he remembered other pieces that he did that could be considered performative. We spent nearly four hours talking about his work, and I easily could have spent more if I didn’t have another meeting to get to across town, with Adelina Popnedeleva,

Adelina is primarily a textile artist, but has done a few significant performance pieces as well. When I first presented my “list” of artists that I wanted to meet to Boryana, she remarked that there were no women artists on it. I had taken the names from my main sources: Body and the East and East Art Map, but those publications are already dated. So, I was happy to have Boryana’s suggestions and additions to my list. After my meeting with Adelina, we shared a taxi yet further across town to Luchezar Boyadzijev’s studio. We both had an opening to go to that evening for the Sofia Queer Forum, which we were invariably late for, due to yet another extended conversation. Luchezar had lived in New York City in the early 1980s, which in and of itself is cool (as a teenager, I often dreamed about how cool it would be to live in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the music and punk scene, and then later, as an art historian I dreamed about it for other (art historical) reasons) – but for a Bulgarian artist to do so, well, this made him not only cool, but a complete and total authority figure on all things artistic when he returned to Bulgaria. He told me about discussions he and his fellow artists would have, where they would ask him about concepts particular to the West at the time – for example, ‘what is a curator?’ Bulgaria did not have a very active experimental art scene until the late 1980s (one art historian told me that it was common that some artists would create experimental land art or performance only when they went abroad, and work more conservatively at home), and it is interesting to see the manner in which these ideas spread through the local art scene when artists went West and returned.

During my time in Sofia, I spent a few afternoons at the Institute for Contemporary Art, speaking with art historian and curator Diana Popova about the experimental art scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s that she was a part of. She showed me photographs from some of the exhibitions that took place at the Artist Union’s Shipka 6 Gallery (named after its address), including those that took place on the roof. One of the most interesting things I learned from her was the role that she played in the development of contemporary art in Bulgaria. When I asked her how she learned about non-traditional art as an art historian in Bulgaria in the 1980s, she told me that she complained to her professor, and he gave her a book on modern art, which she the proceeded to translate into Bulgarian, and the copy circulated hand-to-hand among artists in the manner of samizdat. She also told me that she did the same with Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art: from Futurism to Present, which had only been published in the West 1979.

The Sofia Queer Forum kicked off at the beginning of my trip, with the opening of an exhibition at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery of work by a number of artists, including Boryana Rossa. Czech artist Darina Alster also had a video installation at The Fridge/Xaspel, the social center that organized the Forum. She also hosted an artist talk where she showed examples of her work and discussed the development of feminism and gender-based art in the Czech Republic.

The night before I left I gave my talk at Xaspel, with discussants Luchezar Bojadzijev, who I had met earlier, and Snejanka Mihailova, who was linked up with the talk via Skype. Boryana Rossa also made a virtual appearance in the same manner. The talk was well attended, and provided a nice cap to my week in Sofia.

I was really impressed by the art scene in Sofia. I don’t really understand why it hasn’t received as much art historical and critical attention as its post-socialist neighbors, but I hope to take one small step in rectifying that in my book. The artists I met were all producing really striking and compelling work, and their generosity with their time and willingness to explain everything in great detail went a long way, since, in the absence of a significant body of publications on the art from Bulgaria, my notes and my memories will hopefully enable me to paint an equally vivid picture of the scene, and capture it permanently in print.

  Downtown Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the distance  Downtown Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the distance

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